The movie, “Freedom Writers,” which was released in 2007, is based on a true story about a teacher, Erin Gruwell, who taught at-risk high school students at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California. The story follows Gruwell and her success at motivating and inspiring the students to apply themselves, graduate and follow their dreams.
The class became known as the “Freedom Writers” (coined from the Freedom Riders of the 1961 bus desegregation movement) because of the work they did writing their personal journals which coincided with their research and learning about the Holocaust. Gruwell identified that the students each had unique stories to tell and felt that the journals would give them an outlet for the difficulties that they were going through.
One of the “Freedom Writers,” Sara Capistrant, is currently attending Minnesota School of Business-Elk River (MSB) as a criminal justice student. She recently sat down with Nicole Rasmussen, community manager, to share her experiences as a “Freedom Writer” and to tell her story.
Capistrant, who was born in Coon Rapids, moved to California when she was five years old. She lived in downtown Long Beach while she attended Wilson High School and was a student in Gruwell’s class. She explained that her living conditions were poor during this time; she lived with her mom, stepdad, two sisters and three brothers in a small two-bedroom apartment. The apartment was near a beach that she described as “dirty and littered with needles, dirty diapers and lots of homeless people.”
She explained that attending Wilson was not by choice but based on her academic track record. At the time, few of her family members had graduated high school or attended college and academics were not a priority.
Gruwell began teaching when Capistrant was in ninth grade. The class, she explained, was “very divided … no one talked, we all hated each other and were just trying to get through class without any fights.” Gruwell’s teaching style, however, got the students’ attention, and as she worked with them, she helped them to find common factors which drew them closer together, gain confidence and pursue their dreams.
“Erin was a huge part of my life, and I still go to her for advice and help quite often. She was the first person to not only believe in me but [also] in my classmates,” shared Capistrant.
She explained the lengths that Gruwell would go to in order to help the students. Whether it was giving rides or working two or more jobs to pay for supplies, field trip costs, etc, she would do what it took to help. Her support encouraged the students to graduate and pursue higher education, which was something many did not think was possible.
After Capistrant graduated, she planned to pursue a career as a teacher or a homicide investigator because of the influence that Gruwell had on her. “I wanted to touch kids’ lives like she touched ours,” she explained.
Since then, she has continued to be an active member of the Freedom Writers Foundation. The foundation works with teachers who want to follow Gruwell’s path.
Each summer Capistrant is able to help with three sessions of “Freedom Writers Teachers” which is presented to teachers from all 50 states and several countries.
“We live our Freedom Writer mission every day. We stay out of trouble and do what we can to change the world. All it takes is one person to make a difference, and in our case, we have over 150 people working for the same change,” she shared.
Several events in Capistrant’s life brought her back to Minnesota, and she decided to attend MSB. She chose the school based on location and the program that she was looking for.
She explained that the support of her partner, Bev, helped her to enroll in school to pursue a degree in criminal justice. “I want to change kids’ lives like Ms. G did. I feel that they just need someone to believe in them and hopefully I can help them before they land in jail and have a lifetime of criminal activity,” shared Capistrant.
Capistrant feels that she will be able to use her experience as a Freedom Writer because she has lived through rough times, crime, had friends in gangs, and saw where that life leads and how it affects everyone. She plans to use these experiences to connect with the people that she works with in the future.
She truly has a passion for change and is striving to make the world better. She wrapped up the interview by explaining, “One day we will see Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hopes come true. It won’t matter what color people are, what God they worship, who they love, or the life they live; we are all created equal and should get along.”
To learn more about the Freedom Writers Foundation, click here.