The students who became known as the Freedom Writers through the publication of their high school diaries credit Toastmasters with helping them evolve and blossom as public speakers. They now inspire audiences around the world with their harrowing, yet ultimately uplifting memories of transcending tragedy and hardship. Along the way, their Freedom Writers Toastmasters club in Long Beach, California, became an instrument for maintaining the powerful bond they formed with their former schoolmates two decades ago.
Freedom Writers Sue Ellen Alpizar, CL, Narada Comans and Shanita Jones spoke recently about how gaining presentation skills and confidence helped them connect with international audiences. “When you stand up in front of an audience and share painful stories, you have to travel to a place where feelings are still raw,” says Alpizar, who since graduating from high school in 1998 earned a bachelor’s degree in Chicano and Latino studies at California State University, Long Beach, and now works as the fiscal and human resources director at the Freedom Writers Foundation. “But it enables you to connect with people in a deeper way, and over time I’ve also found it to be cathartic. With many of the audiences we speak to, you often have to expose yourself emotionally to gain their trust.”
Comans, who has worked for the foundation as an outreach speaker since 2006 and who married a fellow Freedom Writer, adds, “Recounting a painful experience can be like peeling open a scab you thought had healed long ago.” By sharing his story of being homeless and experiencing domestic violence and drug use, he now helps others who are in similar situations.
“I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel in those years,” says Comans. “My mission has become to help other at-risk individuals see it’s possible to overcome huge obstacles through hard work and perseverance.”
Speaking in the Middle East
Alpizar, Comans and Jones accompanied their former English teacher Erin Gruwell on a recent U.S. government-sponsored visit to the Middle East.
Alpizar initially feared her story wouldn’t resonate with Palestinian or Israeli audiences but quickly found acceptance and understanding. “We grew up in a battle zone of sorts and they face a battle zone in their backyards every day,” she says. “I was amazed at how many I spoke to had experienced some of the same struggles I had growing up—and didn’t judge.”
Adds Jones, who helped lead a foundation workshop for educators in Israel: “The Freedom Writers’ diaries are not just our stories but the stories of many people around the world who struggle with the same challenges we had in our childhoods.”
The Freedom Writers enjoy the same camaraderie that characterized their famous high school classroom in Southern California in the 1990s. They often bring their children to club meetings—with a baby sitter attending to their needs—as well as family dogs, who’ve provided an unforeseen benefit to the sessions. “When they bark it helps us practice how to deal with unexpected interruptions to our speeches,” jokes Alpizar.
Their Toastmasters’ experience has revealed a side to the Freedom Writers that many of their peers hadn’t previously seen.
“We’ve known each other for more than 20 years but I’ve gotten to know a whole other part of my fellow Freedom Writers through their speeches and Table Topics sessions,” says Alpizar. “We still come together to laugh, to cry and experience life’s emotions, pulling each other up when we’re feeling down or celebrating as a family when good things happen.”
The group is grateful for the continued opportunity to spread their message of hope, acceptance and unity to audiences around the world.
“We have been given such a wonderful gift in being able to help those we speak to see that even in the darkest corners of life, there can be light,” says Alpizar.