It’s not every day a politician dedicates herself to her city more than her job title. For Helen Gym (C '93), though, that’s her daily reality.
Since joining the Philadelphia City Council in 2016, Gym’s main focus has been improving Philadelphia as a whole, starting with implementing policies regarding quality education, affordable housing, and environmental protection. Her driving spark can be traced back to her childhood years growing up in Columbus, Ohio.
The daughter of Korean immigrants, Gym grew up in a community that gave her as much as it could. She utilized any and all resources available to her, from public libraries to recreation centers and everything in between. “I went to a great public school, and it really instilled in me an understanding of the importance of what society can and should be bringing to people,” she says. From a young age, Gym recognized her duty to fulfill her end of the “constant social contract” between people and society: a mutual giving. The feeling lasted for a while. Until it didn’t.
“I landed in a very complicated city,” she says of her decision to attend Penn for her undergraduate years. A short while after graduating with a history degree, Gym worked as a public school teacher at Lowell Elementary School, which was a huge wake up call for her.
“I couldn't imagine [that] a nation, country, society, or city could leave young people behind in schools that lack air conditioning, libraries, modern books, research, science labs, [and] enough mentors,” she recalls. “That really ended this idea that the social contract was a given, but it's something that is actually fought for, and most importantly, organized towards.” Unless people went out for themselves to demand what they deserved, nothing would be delivered.
Once Gym understood the power of her voice, she refused to relent. “I had the chance for more than two decades to organize alongside a group of teachers, storytellers, artists, activists, and parents who wouldn't take no for an answer, and who are determined to see the city do something different and be bigger and better than it had been before,” she says. “And they weren't going to wait.” Political moments are fragile, and people's trust in what's possible can easily be broken. Everything Gym does is “fueled by the understanding that what we lost yesterday is the drive that brings us to the urgency of today and keeps us going in difficult times.”
The one issue that really drove her into office was the discrepancy in quality of public education for thousands of young people in Philadelphia. “When I was considering [running] for office, we had just closed down 30 public schools. We had lost almost all of our nurses and counselors out of the public schools—they were effectively non–existent. They may have been on paper, but in most kids’ lives, they weren't there,” she says. Philly’s political leadership was willing to walk away from public education, so, in 2015, she made the brave choice to run for public office—this was an issue that could unify an entire city.
Obviously, Gym was right on target. “I think my victory showed that Philadelphians are galvanized by things that unite us. We are fiercely protective of one another,” she says. Continuing that mission since her appointment to City Council, Gym has ensured that everything she does is for the greater good of Philadelphia. She kickstarted a school modernization campaign that's invested hundreds of millions of dollars toward restoring air conditioning, remedying mold, and building new public schools. “We were the fourth highest eviction city in the nation pre–pandemic, and … we've reduced the evictions by more than half—by 60%,” she says humbly.
Her efforts don’t stop there. “I've made it a point to expand labor rights, in particular because we're the poorest large city,” Gym says. “We can't have these huge towers [for big corporations] in our city and have people living in such abject poverty who worked for those companies.” So Gym established a new Department of Labor, where she is working to guarantee the fair and advanced hourly schedule model where hourly workers are rightfully paid if their shifts are canceled or upended at the last minute. During the COVID–19 pandemic, when thousands of people lost their jobs, Gym also worked to institute the right to recall: Employers had to offer their formerly laid–off employees a chance to come back before hiring other people.
As the chair of the Children and Youth Committee, Gym leads the agenda to protect vulnerable children. "We spend hundreds of millions of dollars sending young people away when they're in distress or involved in the juvenile justice system. We send them to places where they can be harmed, abused, and then they're sent back to us and we have to pick up the pieces," she says. Because of this, Gym has made it a point to shut down a number of abusive institutions, reconfigure statewide reform and accountability, and establish smaller residential living spaces closer to home for young people in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems.
Beyond enforcing labor regulations and expanding child protection laws, Gym has gone after bad actors to make sure that wage theft and discrimination suits are handled once and for all. “The economic growth and prosperity of our city relies as much on the health and well–being of workers as it does for corporate Wall Street,” she says. Philadelphia is not—and never will be—in a vacuum. What matters elsewhere matters here, too.
That sentiment is further proven by Gym’s response to the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. “I’m gutted,” she says. But for her, the most important way to respond is to acknowledge that our fight must go local. “There's nobody in Harrisburg and there's nobody in Washington, D.C. who is going to fight for us harder, louder, and with a more visionary purpose than us ourselves,” she says. “It’s that outrage that drives me to action, because the decision has nothing to do with caring for life.” Gym believes that if the Supreme Court truly cared for life, it would have fought when baby formula wasn’t available. It would have fought to ensure that there was health care for children and guarantee a strong public school system. “What we need to understand about the Roe decision is that we are tied together in something far beyond abortion rights,” she says.
That’s why Gym is encouraging everyone to get out to the polls in November. Abortion is currently protected in the state of Pennsylvania, but that could change if the ballot swings the other way. “I'm very dedicated to engaging folks for the November elections and supporting turnout in the city that has had far too low turnout, given our passion and what's at stake,” Gym says.
Additionally, we should be enacting buffer zones very clearly around abortion providers with protected areas, the councilwoman argues. There are shield laws that are being passed in municipality after municipality to protect the city and its people from participating in criminal investigations enacted by other states. “I want people to know that if they're from Texas, or if they're coming here to get an abortion, this is a city that will enact a do–not–cooperate law with Texas, unless they have a court order decree. We are not using our resources to criminalize something that is legal within our boundaries and as a human right,” she says.
“My job is to ensure that everybody understands that this is a city that's going to protect our rights,” she says. No matter the stage of life someone is in, be it a 9–year–old going through the public school system or a 19–year–old seeking an abortion—Gym is fighting for them.
At her core, Gym is dedicated to helping other people—and she wants us to feel the same way. “When Penn students reach out to organizations working from the ground up, you’ll find yourself [among] people working to make this country a better place and to make this city—the best city in America—the best. Let’s prove that we can do it, in the hardest of times, when everything feels like it’s against us. We're still going to figure out a way to rise together.”