To Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym (C '93, GED '96), the most honorable thing a leader can do is be the first to take action. As one of Philadelphia's fiercest on–the–ground politicians, Gym upholds this value in all aspects of her career.
"You don’t meet moments of uncertainty and crisis by waiting on the sidelines until you hope things get better—you step into the fray," she says. "That means that you don't ever slow down, that you recognize the importance of stepping into things when it feels uncertain, and that you bring as many people as you can with you.”
Gym is a Penn alum and the first Asian American woman to serve on the Philadelphia City Council, where she’s been seated since 2016. She's a community organizer, a former teacher and journalist, a mother of three, and the chair of the council’s Children and Youth Committee.
The councilmember's parents immigrated to the United States from Korea in the 1960s. Gym was born shortly afterward in Seattle, but she spent most of her childhood living in Columbus, Ohio.
“I then moved to Philadelphia at age 18. The decision was mostly made by drawing a 500–mile radius around my hometown and picking the first school that let me in. I’ve now been a resident for over 30 years since my days at Penn,” Gym says.
Reflecting upon her time in college, Gym recounts that her heart and soul lay in her work as a writer and editor at Street and The Daily Pennsylvanian. Upon graduating in 1993, the history major was committed to pursuing a career in journalism, which inspired her to take a job at the Mansfield News Journal, a small newspaper between Columbus and Cleveland. After the 1992 Los Angeles uprising sparked by the police beating of Rodney King, Gym decided that she wanted to do more direct community work. The councilmember took some time off, studied Irish literature and poetry in New Orleans for a semester, and then found herself back in Philadelphia.
Gym says that her life and career since then have been an "evolving journey."
“I look back, and what I’ve come to recognize is that a lot of my life, whether I acknowledged it or not or was explicit about it, was political," she says.
Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Gym found a home in Asian Americans United and became a teacher at James R. Lowell Elementary School. The 2007 Philadelphia Inquirer Citizen of the Year award winner also led successful campaigns against the construction of a proposed stadium and casino in Chinatown, as well as against the inhumane deportation of immigrants. Additionally, Gym co–founded both Parents United for Public Education and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.
“Most of my work was with young people in Philadelphia and organizing with parents. That [work] is—whether we choose to be explicit about it or not—inherently political," she says. "I think that what we have to do is ... be political in the sense that you can build out communities to work with one another, that you can speak to issues and make them resonate far beyond your own boundaries, and that you can make links to people's lives. That is what I think it means to be political."
One of the main reasons that Gym decided to run for City Council was to help build a broad movement around education justice. Even though Gym works on much more than just schools, she says that education reform is one of the main reasons that she is still a part of the City Council. “The throughline from the moment I arrived was a broader vision for education and a bigger justice movement thriving in Philadelphia," she says.
Gym describes her role on the City Council as part of a larger movement towards building up the communities that she came from. She points out that the work she does as a member of the City Council is equally important to the work that grassroots organizations are doing—both focus on education, justice reform, climate, housing, and countless other important issues, but in different ways.
Looking at the difficulties that Philadelphia and the world have faced throughout the past year, Gym argues that government matters most during times of crisis. “This is when society and government were meant to exist, to lift individuals up who can’t do it on their own," she says.
The councilmember has moved quickly on supporting housing and renter protections, a safe return to public schools, and labor rights that protect essential workers and ensure that Black, brown, and female workers will not be left behind. “These are the things which should guide us as we make our way out of this pandemic and through the next several years of recovery," Gym says.
Despite the challenges that the past several months have presented, the councilmember says that the new generation gives her hope. When times are most uncertain, she finds herself spending more time with young people. After the insurrection at the Capitol, Gym felt that it was important to reach out to students throughout the city. She's visited at least a dozen schools since.
“It has been really energizing to see how engaged young people are, and how articulate they are in recognizing what this country’s failures have been, and also what its possibilities are,” she says.
Gym's biggest hope for Philadelphia in the next ten years is that a real people’s movement will rise, thrive, and assume leadership of the city, and that the power structures within the city will become more responsive to individual communities. She believes that Philadelphia, as one of the poorest large cities in the country, can become a national leader by realizing the promise of public education, ending poverty, and eliminating race, income, and neighborhood–based disparities. Once that happens, she argues, the city could be a model for the country and inspire change elsewhere—because if it can be done in Philadelphia, it can be done anywhere.
Gym believes that Penn also has a role to play in helping Philadelphia reach its potential. “Penn is an island of privilege in a city that is trying to stay afloat. Penn’s strength can only grow when Philadelphia’s [strength] continues to grow," she says. "Things like the state of our public schools, the very infrastructure and aging buildings, healthcare and the gross inequities that we’re seeing right now with this pandemic—those are areas that Penn should step into and be a leader on. There's no honor in being a small island of privilege. There is honor in leading the charge towards uplifting our city."