Darrius Garrett was born and raised on the Eastside of Long Beach, California- made famous by rapper Snoop Dogg and others. Darrius has had over 35 friends and family members die from drugs and gang violence. At the age of 15, Darrius already felt in his heart that he was not going to make it out of 1996 alive. He watched friends become enemies, surrounded by gangs and drugs. He was often homeless. After being arrested for drug possession, Darrius was jailed in the 9th grade. He was later released and enrolled in Ms. Gruwell’s English class at Wilson High School- a move that Darrius believes changed his life.
Darrius always knew that he wanted a better life, but was never able to find a way out, until- inspired by his teacher- he made a “toast for change” and tolerance. He realized that he didn’t want the street life anymore, and he wanted to change no matter what- even if it meant his life.
Darrius began to see the Freedom Writers movement as an opportunity to save other kids’ lives and right the wrongs in his past. Since the beginning of the movement, Darrius has spoken at countless schools, churches, community centers, and convention centers. He is most proud of his work in juvenile detention facilities and group homes. Darrius has been featured on numerous news programs for his work with the Freedom Writers. Darrius is very grateful for Erin Gruwell, the Freedom Writers, and for the change he was able to create in his own life.
Tony Becerra isa first generation American, born and raised in Long Beach, California. Tony grew up in poverty with an alcoholic father and busy mother working hard to keep the family together. He was often left to fend for himself. Tony’s parents didn’t learn English until he was in high school, and he himself didn’t learn until he started school.
Often teased and beat up, Tony ended up hating school and doing poorly. By the time he arrived in teacher Erin Gruwell’s freshmen English class he had gone to eight different schools as a result of busing and overcrowding. Often chased home by gang members, he was once assaulted to the point of requiring hospitalization and a six month recovery process. Tony grew up amidst violence, and suffered the loss of a close family member to senseless gang violence.
Tony found acceptance in Ms. Gruwell’s classroom where students from very different backgrounds learned they were not so different when they really got to know each other. They began writing stories about their lives, which would later be compiled in the book The Freedom Writers Diary. The book- whose cover features Tony as a young student- was later made into the major motion picture Freedom Writers.
Since high school, Tony has worked as an Americorp volunteer in New York, speaking to over 50,000 students and being awarded a Certificate of National Service. He was recently involved with at-risk youth in the GEAR UP program in southern California. He currently works with the Freedom Writers Foundation, speaking to audiences all over the country. Working with youth has inspired Tony and he plans to return to college to earn his teaching credential.