Learning for Social Justice: A Cultural Historical Activity Theory Analysis of Community Leadership Empowerment in a Korean American Community Organization

Open Access
Kim, Junghwan
Graduate Program:
Adult Education
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 19, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Fred Michael Schied, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Fred Michael Schied, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Melody M Thompson, Committee Member
  • Cynthia Pellock, Committee Member
  • Edgar Paul Yoder, Committee Member
  • adult learning
  • community leadership
  • cultural historical activity theory
  • Korean American Activist
  • community organization
Community organizations, especially those aiming at social change, play a significant role in establishing societal health and contributing to adult learning in daily communities. Their existence secures marginalized groups’ involvement in society and enhances community development by building community leadership with multiple stakeholders that infuses new meanings to other organizational or community sectors beyond traditional approaches on leadership. This critical ethnography analyzed how community activists in an urban Korean American Community Organization built community leadership and engaged in daily learning for social justice. Data were collection over a six-month period and included participant observation, formal and informal interviews with seventeen activists, and analysis of documents and cultural artifacts. Data were analyzed using qualitative methods of data analysis, reflection, and writing. Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) was used as a theoretical framework. Learning in CHAT is understood as a socio-cultural phenomenon in which learning occurs through dynamic and continuous interaction of the subject and object, mediated within a specific socio-cultural and historical context. Three community leadership activities (activity systems) were identified: Coalition, Empowerment, and Collaboration. The activities were each driven by objects through historical accumulation of the organization’s background and internal/external socio-cultural contexts. Diverse contradictions were found within each activity and among activities. The contradictions throughout three activities may hinder community leadership building and learning. The contradictions became a driving force for learning. Consequently, the activists created a revised object among the three activities: to advance immigrant rights by enhancing community leadership focused organizational capacity building. This object as a significant learning outcome led to various intended/unintended outcomes for community leadership development and unintended outcomes for social and individual level learning, including socio-cultural and structural transformation, new actions, and individual learning. These learning outcomes result in the revision of the community leadership activity network with intended outcomes. Based on the findings, learning needs to be understood as a social process; researchers need more focus on social outcomes of learning. Several important features for facilitating community leadership and learning were also discussed. Finally, this study concluded with academic and practical implications as well as suggestions for further research.