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Councilmember Helen Gym spoke at AL DÍA Talks on Sept. 19. Photo: Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News
Councilmember Helen Gym spoke at AL DÍA Talks on Sept. 19. Photo: Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News

‘Politics is about every single day of our lives’

City Councilmember Helen Gym sat down with AL DÍA to discuss her proposed fair work week legislation, city municipal IDs, shutting down the Berks Detention…

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From fighting for fair work week legislation, to advocating for immigrant communities and the health of the city as a whole, City Councilmember Helen Gym takes a long-term view of the systemic changes she wants to implement, but embarks on those campaigns with all of the urgency of the immediate. She sat down with AL DÎA in September to talk about her vision for a more equitable and thriving Philadelphia. [This interview has been condensed. You can watch the livestream in full on our Facebook page.]

Can you tell us more about your fair work week legislation [scheduled for a City Council hearing on Oct. 30]?

This legislation that I’m proposing simply asks for advance notice of schedules for hourly workers in retail and fast food and hospitality. These are some of our largest sectors of the economy, they are extremely unstable, and we have currently 130,000 workers who, for the most part, don’t know when they’re going to work, or how much they’re going to work.

The bill...eliminates probably 98 percent of food businesses in Philadelphia, so they won’t even be impacted. We’re talking about large-scale employers, McDonald’s, chain restaurants, those that have...the technological capacity to get to zero food waste, every single month. I have a hard time believing that they can’t treat their employees with that same kind of respect.

We know that when people don’t know when they’re going to work, or how many hours they’re going to get in a particular week, we see them swing wildly from week to week. They struggle to take care of their children, they don’t take care of their health, they can’t get a second job, they struggle to go back to a training program to get higher skills...They can’t go back to school or even juggle all these things.

You’ve been an advocate for shutting down the Berks County Residential Center. Where do efforts to shut down the detention center stand?

It’s extraordinarily inhumane to keep children in a prison setting, to not allow them to be able to attend school or participate in programs, or play in parks, and keep them in cells — even if it's with their families — and keep families there that have committed no crime, except to seek refuge in the United States, to apply for asylum, which they are legally allowed to do.

If we’re appalled by what we’re seeing at the border and the separation of families, then we should be equally appalled when we’re doing this less than an hour away from Philadelphia with families here in our own state, on our watch.

Berks could be well-used for other things — maybe it could be a treatment center for the drug opioid crisis that is eviscerating out whole parts of the center of our state of Pennsylvania.

Gov. Wolf could issue an emergency order removal, we believe that is well within his purview. It makes a lot of sense, and the county can figure out healthier ways for the use of the facility rather than imprisoning children and families.

What are the next steps for Philly as a welcoming city after the ending of the PARS contract with ICE this past summer?

It was great to see...that Philadelphia now ranks amongst the top 10 out of the largest cities in the nation that are considered the most immigrant friendly, and I think that has a lot to do with policies that we’ve put in place.

We know that immigrant communities struggle in a state that has really restrictive requirements to get an ID, that they struggle to get identification that then hampers them in terms of job applications, benefit applications, or even getting into a public building. So if we create a local municipal ID program, then we have the opportunity to give our residents in all stages, not only immigrants but returning citizens, our youth, seniors, a really great opportunity to feel like they are walking through as full members of the city of Philadelphia.

With nearly 26 percent of the population living in poverty, what must Philadelphia do to address the economic inequality in the city?

We don’t become the poorest large city overnight simply by accident, we do it by the choices we make and hard decisions that we choose to give that promote inequality.

Sometimes a lot of people think about poverty as a problem that individuals tend to have, without understanding the systems by which we allow poverty to continue on, flourish, if not profit from. And the choice that we make in giving up $93 million in 2017 alone on the 10-year tax abatement, which is basically a two-decade old program that gives a ten-year tax break to some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in our city, while starving our school district and our city of property taxes, is right now something I believe to be untenable. So we’re pushing to end the 10-year tax abatement as we currently see it, and to create a much more fair and realistic program that we’re going to see across the city of Philadelphia.

I will say and recognize that I believe I’m in the minority, when I talk about ending poverty I don’t believe that jobs alone will do it. Because the jobs that people get when they are poor are largely going to be in the service sector that we talked about earlier with my fair workweek legislation, they’re at $7.25 an hour. With a lot of these jobs, people don’t even know when they’re gonna work or even how many hours they’re going to get, so they can’t even predict their rent.

One of the most significant things that we’re grappling with as a city...is the lack of housing. If you do not have a roof over your head, you will not get out of poverty. And when thousands of people in the city of Philadelphia seek shelter every single night in our city, we are putting ourselves in a dangerous situation. We’re putting blinders on when we talk about how we want to end poverty, when what we should really be talking about is how we’re going to end things that would directly address poverty. Putting a roof over somebody’s head will go a long way towards ending poverty as we know it.

On the importance of civic participation:

Power was always in the hands of the people and it’s time for people to assert that power. That means that we go out there and vote… It means that we go out there and make a lot of noise about the issues that we care about and the people that we love, and we make changes. Not decades from now, but we make change right now.

We saw, with the ending of PARS, with the seize back of our local school system, with the fight to end horrible conditions for our young people, to fight for housing, those things don’t have to be on a 20 or 30-year trajectory.

I hope that what people see, despite all the chaos we see all around us, is an essential need for people to get engaged and involved — to understand that politics doesn’t have to just be election day and candidates, that politics is about every single day of our lives that we live. If we’re immigrants, our lives are political, if we’re women, our lives are political, if we’re black and brown youth and immigrant youth, our lives are political. If we’re struggling to put a roof over our heads, our lives are going to be political. So that means that our voices matter, that they matter now more than ever.

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