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Education Reform Advocate Erin Gruwell to Keynote the 2024 Access to Justice Awards Dinner on June 20

ABLE, Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Inc. (LAWO), and the Toledo Bar Association Pro Bono Legal Services Program (TBA) will honor two individuals and an organization for their extraordinary service to people living in poverty in northwest Ohio: The Honorable Michelle Wagner for her work in the Toledo Municipal Court, where she implemented the court’s Driver’s License Reinstatement docket; the Honorable Ian B. English for leading the Adult Treatment Court in the Lucas County Court of Common Pleas, and Mom’s House for its commitment to helping at-risk single parents break the cycles of poverty and welfare.

The awards will be presented during the Access to Justice Awards Dinner and Ceremony on Thursday, June 20, at The Pinnacle in Maumee. The event, which is attended by over 300 guests each year, is led by the northwest Ohio legal community with proceeds to support civil legal services in our region. A sponsor and VIP reception will kick off the festivities at 6:00 p.m., followed by a public reception at 6:30 p.m. and the dinner and awards ceremony starting at 7:00 p.m.

This year's featured keynote speaker is Erin Gruwell. Ms. Gruwell is a teacher, author, and education reform activist who has been fighting for social justice for over two decades. Ms. Gruwell first gained national attention in 1998 when she and 150 of her students appeared on an ABC special — “PrimeTime Live” — with Connie Chung. Ms. Gruwell’s students, affectionately called the Freedom Writers, came from backgrounds of poverty, gangs, and violence, and many were at risk of dropping out of school due to the school-to-prison pipeline. However, under Ms. Gruwell’s guidance, all 150 Freedom Writers graduated from high school and pursued higher education.

In 1999, Ms. Gruwell and the Freedom Writers published their book, “The Freedom Writers Diary,” which detailed their unique journey from hardship to hope. The book was a #1 New York Times bestseller and was adapted into a major motion picture, “Freedom Writers,” starring Hilary Swank as Ms. Gruwell. The film brought her work to an even wider audience, and she has since used her platform to continue to fight for equity and inclusion with her nonprofit, the Freedom Writers Foundation.

The 2024 Access to Justice Awards Dinner and Ceremony will feature education reform activist, Erin Gruwell.

The 2024 Access to Justice Awards Dinner and Ceremony will feature education reform activist, Erin Gruwell.

Ms. Gruwell’s work has been recognized with several humanitarian awards, including the Spirit of Anne Frank Award. She and the Freedom Writers have appeared on multiple shows to promote education reform, including, “Oprah,” “The View,” “Good Morning America,” and NBC’s “TODAY.” We are very pleased to have Ms. Gruwell share her story with our guests at this year’s Access to Justice event.

2024 Public Interest Law Award recipient is the Honorable Michelle Wagner, the presiding and administrative judge of the Toledo Municipal Court. Judge Wagner implemented the court’s Driver’s License Reinstatement docket in 2013. Designed to help citizens navigating the BMV system to clear various blocks on their driver’s licenses and retest so they can receive valid driver’s licenses, the Driver’s License Reinstatement docket has helped hundreds of Lucas County residents regain their driving privileges and overcome hurdles such as reinstatement fees and license suspensions.

The Honorable Ian B. English is receiving a 2024 Community Advocacy Award for leading the life-changing Treatment Court, a specialized docket certified by the Ohio Supreme Court. The Treatment Court team, led by Judge English, educates program participants, and assists those who experience overdoses. The Treatment Court has diverted several low-level substance use-involved offenders to community-based treatment rather than incarceration. Through its innovative programming, the Treatment Court has helped community members with homelessness, employment, education, driver's license reinstatement, and generally experiencing a better quality of life.

A second 2024 Community Advocacy Award will go to Mom’s House, a nonprofit dedicated to guiding at-risk single parents through the process of achieving educational goals and providing parents with the critical tools and resources they need to provide safe and stable environments for their families. Mom’s House is led by Executive Director Christina Rodriguez, an active citizen and volunteer known throughout the community for her advocacy for underserved families. Under Christina’s leadership, Mom’s House has expanded its reach and formed partnerships with other social service agencies such as Sisters-in-Law and Habitat for Humanity.

Those looking to be inspired by this year’s keynote speaker and award recipients can purchase individual tickets online at

Current sponsors at the Associate and Partner Sponsorship levels are The Ability Center, Area Office on Aging, R. Jeffrey & Kathleen Bixler, Bowling Green State University, Dana Incorporated, Eastman & Smith, Gallon, Takacs & Boissoneault Co., LPA, Greater Toledo Community Foundation, Malone, Ault & Farell, Marathon Petroleum Corporation, Marshall & Melhorn, LLC, Ohio Access to Justice Foundation, Owens Corning, Owens-Illinois, RCO Law, Schaffer & Associates, LPA, Shumaker, Spengler Nathanson, the Trust Company Family Offices, University of Toledo College of Law. Nationwide Children’s Hospital-Toledo is a Community Partner for this event.

For more information, contact Carmen Vega-Pérez at ABLE: (419) 930-2515 or

About the author

Advocates for Basic Legal Equality

Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. (ABLE) is a non-profit regional law firm that provides high quality legal assistance in civil matters to help eligible low-income individuals and groups in western Ohio achieve self reliance, and equal justice and economic opportunity.