February 26, 2007

By Paul Feinberg

In the current feature film Freedom Writers, Hilary Swank stars in the based-on-a-true-story of an idealistic Long Beach, California high school teacher who sets out to make a difference in an inner-city school and to change the lives of the students least likely to have their lives changed.

The teacher Swank portrays is Erin Gruwell. As described in her bio, Gruwell and her students (inspired by Anne Frank and Zlata Filipovic who lived through war-torn Sarajevo) “captured their collective journey in The Freedom Writers Diary – How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them. Through poignant student entries and Erin’s narrative text, the book chronicles their ‘eye-opening, spirit-raising odyssey against intolerance and misunderstanding.’”

The book became an international sensation and the lives of Gruwell’s original students – the Freedom Writers themselves – were forever changed, with all 150 of these once “unteachable” teens ultimately going to college. And if the story ended there, it would still make for a great movie.

But the story doesn’t end there. Today, Gruwell is president of the Freedom Writers Foundation, an organization now dedicated to spreading her educational philosophies, theories and message to other teachers, so that they might be implemented in classrooms around the country.

But Gruwell can’t do the work alone. Described by the Executive Director  at the foundation as “the visionary,” she needed someone by her side that could assist her with execution. That person is Faye Walsh (’08), a current UCLA Anderson student. Walsh is a second-year in the Fully-Employed MBA program (FEMBA), splitting time between the classroom and the board room of the foundation.

Walsh believes it’s serendipity that she and Gruwell are working together. She first heard of Erin in 1994, when, after a small article appeared in the Newport Beach Daily Pilot, her Aunt Polly approached the educator and asked “How can I help?” Aunt Polly became Gruwell’s first in-class volunteer and spoke of her experience to her niece.

In 1999, Walsh was working for the prominent law firm Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, with an eye towards eventually attending law school. She decided to become a volunteer in Gruwell’s campaign for Congress and now says, “I haven’t turned back since” though there were some detours along the way. Gruwell lost that bid for congress by less than 1,000 votes. “It was devastating,” Walsh says, “We felt like we were changing the world.”

Walsh then took a position in Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher’s Paris office, working in business development. During her three year stay in France, she concluded that she didn’t want to be a lawyer and focused on marketing.

She eventually returned to California and re-united with Gruwell, who asked her to help get the Freedom Writers Foundation off the ground. It was at this time that Walsh made her first UCLA Anderson connection. Ric Kayne (’68), CEO of Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors and member of Anderson’s Board of Visitors, was the Foundation’s first fund raiser. According to Walsh, Kayne asked Gruwell the essential question:

“Can you bottle the secret sauce?”

Kayne knew that Gruwell had achieved great success in the classroom. He also knew that there was only one Erin Gruwell. What he wanted to know was, could the Foundation spread the Gruwell-gospel and educate other teachers to utilize the methodology. Walsh and Gruwell believed they could and the pair became partners. It’s a partnership that works. “She is the dreamer,” Walsh said, “I help turn the vision into reality.”

The partners knew they had a good story to tell and one of the first orders of business was to mesh that story with a business plan. Kayne suggested he work with one of their consultants to that end. That consultant was UCLA Anderson Prof. Bill Cockrum. “I was drawn to Bill,” Walsh recalled. “He cared about teaching and he believed in us. But he also felt we needed polish.” Walsh wrote a business plan with Cockrum providing tough-but-helpful assistance. The plan led to additional funding for the Foundation.

The experience also inspired Walsh to earn an MBA. Cockrum encouraged her and helped steer her towards Anderson. It was the only program to which she applied. Walsh briefly entertained the notion of entering the Executive MBA (EMBA) program, but chose be become a FEMBA instead.

“I love the FEMBA program,” Walsh said. “I couldn’t imagine not working while going to school. I’m a second year and it’s been an incredible experience. I love the diversity of the student body and I’m lucky to combine the experience with a unique professional life.”

Though only at the halfway point in her studies, Walsh has already seen her education make an impact on her work. “I go to class and immediately apply the theories and knowledge I’ve learned.” She cites her courses in organizational behavior and human resources as being “surprisingly beneficial; she now notes that the importance of learning to work with and manage people is the most valuable skill a manager can have and quotes Prof. Barbara Lawrence when noting that, “If you cannot manage people, you will never successfully manage a business.”

With the release of the film in December, this year proved to be a particularly busy one. School, she says, is sometimes a respite from her job, an intellectual escape during which she gets to reflect on everything she is working on. She says that some of her best ideas for work come during class. And she is quick to point out how supportive the Anderson community has been. For example, Prof. Andrew Ainslie allowed her to study her own company as a class project, to help her best manage her work and educational lives as the film entered theaters.

Then, there is the film itself.

The release of Freedom Writers, is, Walsh says, “Amazing … the single most powerful marketing tool that anyone could ask for.” The task now, is to work to leverage the film and use it to take the Freedom Writers Foundation to another level.

As executive director, Walsh’s task is to oversee the program side of the foundation’s work, while also managing the budget, overseeing the seven full-time staff members, interacting with the Board of Directors and executive board, seeking new revenue streams and, well, the list goes on and on. She also accompanies Gruwell on the road to many of the latter’s 100+ speaking engagements per year. The programs are three-fold. The first is the teacher’s training program. The second are the curriculum and materials (and includes interfacing with the book’s publisher, creation of the teaching guide, distribution and managing future product lines like DVDs.) The third program is a scholarship program for the original Freedom Writers, many of whom are still in school.

On top of everything are the fundraising, marketing and sales of books and materials. The foundation seeks diversity in revenue streams, bringing in dollars through additional grants, book sales, royalties and in-kind donations. (The movie itself is no longer a source of revenue; the filmmakers paid originally for the rights to the story and those funds were invested in the company. But the foundation does not share in the film’s theatrical royalties.)

All the while, Walsh remains focused on the foundation’s long- and short-term goals. In the short term (18-months), they have plans to bring five times as many teachers into the fold than they have in now, from 30 to 150. They plan to triple the $500,000. a year budget and build the educational credibility of the foundation by showing real results through the educational experiences of the children being taught via the foundation’s methods.

For the long term, she says the goals include continuing to build the institute, and institutionalizing the Freedom Writers methodology not only through students, but through the teachers coming into the program.

Visit the Freedom Writers Foundation Web site.

Media Relations