by Erica Sweett
Coming to Korea 1.5 years ago, I could never have imagined how much this country and its people could teach me. For me, education is about discovery. It is a shared knowledge that opens your mind to worlds beyond your own. Instead of passively learning about the culture and history of where we are living, we become active members of retelling and reshaping the future.
In March I was invited to see a play about three women who worked in the Korean garment factories during the 1970s. The women read their stories alongside actors who reenacted the scenes. Choking back tears, they spoke of the inhumane treatment, humiliation and violence they endured in the factories.
The Korea these women spoke of was not only of a different time, but of a completely different world. Their stories allowed me to see, from a personal perspective, the struggles many Koreans face.
The three women are political activists and organizers. Some are also mothers and grandmothers. They have taken on many roles during their lifetime have persevered and continue to fight for justice. I left the theatre inspired. These women could have easily buried their painful pasts; instead they had the strength to share their stories.
A couple of weeks later we met Shin Soon-Ae, one of the women from the play, in a Seoul cafe in Dongdaemun, located in the building that formerly housed the Cheonggye garment factories. After ordering some drinks, Shin told us more about the café’s past and that it hadn’t changed from the 1970’s. She took us on a small tour of the building and with her guidance, we were able to imagine a worker’s life here.
We also met with Lee Chung Gak and Choi Son Young, the other two women from the play. The three women told us about small church-based education programs and unions that led to their politicization. The programs allowed workers to become a part of a community where they were able to interact in small groups with their peers. These smaller interactions gave them a shared sense of pride and empowerment that inspired them to organize and take action.
This type of schooling was seen as a threat to the government and factory owners and was quickly shut down. A capitalist driven society does not value community education, but rather education that is driven by competition and individual needs. Small grassroots education programs posed a big threat to the oppressive leaders of the time. The action inspired by the educational programs proves that – while capitalism and dictator governments are powerful – so too are organized communities.
The ISC has given me the opportunities to engage in a way that wouldn’t have been possible on my own. They have introduced me to people and places that have challenged and broadened my understanding of the world. Through them I have started to connect more with Korea. I have become a part of a diverse community that is allowing me to reflect on my place, not only in Korea’s struggles, but the struggles of the global community.
These women have motivated me to infuse my life with more passion and to continuously question the knowledge I am acquiring. They identify as workers and have dedicated their lives to telling their stories. Learning in this way from our community is the first step towards becoming actively involved in a fight for change.