Interviewed by Samantha Joo
My dear friend, Erika, had interviewed Minsun Ji for her research project and recommended that I talk with her. She thought that we had similar visions in developing leaders for social justice. So I contacted her and she was more than enthusiastic in meeting with me.
We met in her school office in Downtown Denver. And well, I was taken aback by her energetic personality. I haven’t seen that much energy and passion in a person since Angela Davis at a Harvard lecture. She shared stories of how she came to the US and had started her work among immigrant workers in Denver. And consistent with her fiery nature, she spiced up every other sentence with a little profanity. I smiled every time I heard “f#*%” because it was nice to hear such words from a professor. She definitely did not belong in the library. No. She belonged on the streets fighting for justice for the marginalized.
I absolutely loved my time with her. I learned so much about the different trajectory that our lives take us. But nevertheless, our passion keeps us grounded in the communities we want to serve.
Not only did I gain an ally but most likely a Korean friend. It is a fortuitous meeting in which one finds a colleague, ally, friend, and a soul sister. And the best part, she wrote the answers to the questions. I did not have to transcribe the interview; we just chatted.
Sam: What event or series of event made you interested in social justice?
Minsun: Although my interests in social justice began when I was in high school, helping teachers organize Korea’s first teachers’ unions, a turning point in my life happened when I entered the university in Korea. I was deeply influenced by the student movements and my colleagues, students, and workers who were dedicated to overthrowing the authoritarian government to create a democratic society. I was deeply touched by people who sacrificed themselves to call for democracy or workers’ rights, and my life became dominated by political activism such as student movements and labor movements. In particular, my biggest influence came when I started to build a night school for workers in the suburban area of Seoul. It took us 2 years to prepare for opening a night school for workers, partly because there were only few philanthropic foundations supporting these kinds of causes at the time in Korea. So we had to raise funding over a long period of time. Night schools back then were a very common strategy for university students to engage in the life of workers and the powerless. And running a night school, creating classes (in subjects like women’s history, capitalism, labor law, Korean modern history, and workers’ art), and being with workers changed my life.
Sam: What made you pursue a doctorate degree and become a professor when you have been active in nonprofit work?
Minsun: In the US, I organized immigrants. I organized janitors with SEIU, and organized immigrant day laborers with El Centro Humanitario for many years before going back to pursue a PhD. It was my absolute honor to work with immigrant day laborers, founding Denver’s first workers’ center, El Centro Humanitario para los Trabajadores (Humanitarian Center for Workers). Many immigrant day laborers in the US gather on street corners to look for jobs but they are subject to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. My job was to educate workers about their rights, to go after unscrupulous employers with collective workers’ actions, and to develop worker leadership. I had endless meetings with workers on streets and at a shelter near the street corner where workers congregated, and our first day laborer center opened in 2002 after two years’ of street organizing. Workers were very active in running their organization and my job was to create a democratic organization where workers felt a sense of ownership. I was with El Centro for ten years, and workers taught me the real meaning of such words as “ struggle” and “ resilience.”
The decision to pursue a doctorate did not come easy, as I loved my work with day laborers, and it took me a long time to make a decision to leave this work. The major motivation to seek a PhD stemmed from a strong intellectual curiosity to ‘know the unknown,’ and I was into learning as much as possible to help me make the right decisions to guide my actions. Knowledge was not only important for me so that I could know the truth of events, but also provided me with more concrete action plans. In particular, I was very interested in developing deeper understanding of the effects of globalization on workers’ quality of life, and I wanted to seek ways by which the poor and the less privileged in society could empower themselves. Also, I wanted to pursue a PhD to inspire and mentor students, some of whom are interested in social justice issues as much as I was deeply influenced by university life when I went to school, and which led me to be where I am now.
Sam: How does your immigrant experience contribute to your vision for the New Directions in Politics and Public Policy program at the University of Colorado Denver?
Minsun: My experience as an immigrant in the U.S. helped me understand the life of immigrants (both documented and undocumented) in this country and helped me to shape a vision for the New Directions in Politics and Public Policy at CU Denver. I love the fact that New Directions is a weekend Master’s program for the working professionals who continue to seek education on the weekends. It immediately resonated with my life as it took me a long life journey to continue with my own education. After taking on the job as a Program Director, I added two Masters’ program concentration areas to the New Directions program—a community/labor organizing focus and a social economy focus- in order to help New Directions grow to be a hub of community-labor organizing education in Denver. While developing a community organizing and solidarity economy Master’s program, I am also focusing on developing diverse education certificate programs for rank and file union members and community leaders. I believe it is important to create educational programs for those community members, because of my long years of working with low income workers.
Also I have focused on diversifying faculty members and students as a key goal for the program. This awareness of the importance of diversity and inclusivity in faculty members and students came from my own experience of being an immigrant who struggled to learn English and to get through many personal and social obstacles to get to where I am now. I believe students need diverse role models in their classrooms, and faculty who can understand the diverse kinds of challenges students from unique backgrounds face.
Sam: What personal and social identities are important to you? And why?
Minsun: The identity of an engaged scholar who is connected to social and political issues is important for me, as is my identity as a Korean. I take pride in my Korean heritage not only as a source of national identity but also as a source of personal inspiration, because of the fact that Korea went through many years of struggles to create a democratic society. Korea’s long history of vigorous social movements and democratization revolutions offer a lesson that social activists everywhere in the world can learn from. Also, I am proud to be an immigrant, woman and mother.
Sam: Who is the source of your inspiration or who is your role model?
Minsun: I get inspired by common workers, such as immigrant day laborers, who go through so many struggles, yet are resilient. Very specifically, I was deeply inspired by the sacrifice of a Korean labor activist, Chun Tae-il, a Korean garment factory worker who self-immolated himself in 1970s to awaken the public about horrid working conditions of workers making clothes at the Peace market. As a freshman in college, learning about the life of Chun Tae-il shook me hard to the core. Chun’s remarks right before his death--such as “ don’t let my death be in vain” and “ I wish I had a friend who went to college so that he could teach me labor law”-- have always stayed with me. As much as Chun wished to have a college friend who is in supportive of poor workers, I saw my job to help college students to become friends with those who are alienated, poor, and less privileged in this society.
Minsun is the Director of the Center for New Directions in Politics and Public Policy program, in the Political Science Department at the University of Colorado Denver. She was the founder and long-time executive director of a worker center in Denver, Colorado, El Centro Humanitario para los Trabajadores (Humanitarian Center for Workers), organizing immigrant day laborers and domestic workers. She was also a labor union organizer with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and was a labor activist in her native country, South Korea. She received her Ph.D. from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and her special interests of research include international political economy, worker cooperatives, social movements, labor politics of different countries and solidarity economy