‘There’s a city we have to build’: Helen Gym wants to reimagine Philadelphia
The latest segment of AL DÍA Talks featured mayoral candidate Helen Gym, a former at-Large city councilmember with a lifetime of community advocacy behind her.
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Helen Gym is adamant about making her story known. Even as her campaign is awash with 18 endorsements, seasoned campaign leadership, and an unwavering base of supporters that have made for political tailwinds, Gym wants to strike the counterweight between delivering her message and setting the record straight amid steep criticism.
She is one of the more high-profile candidates in the race to become the next mayor of Philadelphia in what can only be described as a pivotal transfer of power in 2024 in a field brimming with experience, quality, and ambition — and it’s not her first rodeo.
Gym also battled it out in city council in what seemed, from the outside looking in, like a follow-up of the work she engaged with in staunch defense of Philly schools for the last 20 years.
“I've done a lot of major campaigns where there has been a lot at stake, and there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Gym, 54, said in an interview with AL DÍA News.
Indeed, she has spent much of her life in the trenches of advocacy and organizing, whether that be with the community or on the political rostrum, “as somebody who wasn't afraid to take on some of the entrenched politics that held us back.”
“I think a lot of people thought that this activist, teacher, you know, organizer type might not be well suited for affiliate politics,” Gym said.
“But it turns out that those kinds of skill sets that we learn in communities when a lot of elected officials or people with a lot of power and title kind of ran and scattered. The people who stood in their place were parents or residents,” she continued.
Before the limelight
More than two decades ago, she opposed a proposal by former Mayor John Street to build a baseball stadium in Chinatown alongside Asian Americans United, a community group, defeating a strong push by city government at the time.
Donned a “thorn” to the school district, Gym is no stranger to taking on bigger battles, unequivocally calling drastic cuts to schools “human rights abuses happening to children in our own city” with Parents United for Public Education, a parent-led education advocacy group, of which she is a founding member.
In 2012, when the city felt the burning score of further cuts to school funding and a sweep of closures, Gym’s cutting thoughts were printed in the Washington Post, where she addressed Doctor Thomas Knudsen, then-Chief Recovery Officer for the City, who targeted 40 schools.
“I believe our communities have always been there to pick up the pieces after administrations of hubris pass on. And I believe our public schools are worth fighting for,” Gym said, as quoted in the Post.
Not much has changed — not for Gym, and not for the district.
“In 2016, I ran for a very specific reason. And that was largely because the city had just closed down 30 public schools… And I felt like this city was actually not going to be able to rise if it left the core functions of government behind.”
And though she took on countless individual battles since the start of her city council term in 2016, she considers them a far cry from piecemeal.
“I actually think that a simple project at a time of great disinvestment kick-started a huge investment campaign,” she told AL DÍA.
The continued fight for investment schools is complicated and ugly
Because the district cannot raise its own revenue, it is entirely dependent on the city’s wallet, calling for a creative approach to fulfilling payroll and improvements to infrastructure, like municipal bonds, cash from Harrisburg, and some change from the federal government.
But a timing disagreement between when the city and state are able to distribute funds and when the school board actually needs the reserves created a deficit for the district to the tune of $485 million by 2027.
Whether related to funding, these disagreements materialized in the form of lawsuits.
Ideas for how the district could independently sustain itself abound, but nothing is set in stone.
“I don't see that as debt,” said Gym, “because if you see it as debt, if you see it as burdens, then you'll never invest.”
An “investment-based approach,” Gym explained, means welcoming the superintendent to become “a lead part of the mayor's cabinet and vice versa, because I do want the city and the school systems to be united and to be held accountable for one another.”
She also expects the board to be leaders who are involved, vested, “who have a tremendous amount of engagement on the ground, who are active in communities who are going to be visible and present.”
“I believe I'm the only candidate that really understands how to make that an actual investment and convert it into a significant amount of private, state, federal, and local support for our youth and to grow our city.”
Other plans, according to Gym’s platform on education, are to create a database of standing facility issues and convene stakeholders, including organized labor groups, to develop a 10-year plan to modernize schools.
In the aftermath of a State Supreme Court decision that found the current funding system unconstitutional, “I expect that we are going to fight like hell to see a lot more money come through and that that should be a united front,” Gym declared.
Reorienting public safety
Gym has yet to release her public safety agenda in full but made clear in AL DÍA Talks that it is top of mind for the campaign.
Still, on the campaign trail, she has floated a targeted approach to the city’s most affected-blocks and reduced 911 response times. On day one, Gym plans to summon department heads from different areas of government to deploy a whole-of-government approach, and convening weekly cabinet meetings.
Other efforts to curb violence could be seen from the fourth floor at city hall where, in 2021, then-councilmember Gym proposed Mobile Crisis Response Units for emergencies that didn’t require police intervention, championed by the Treatment Not Trauma Coalition.
This came in the aftermath of a shooting resulting in the death of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man with a history of mental illness.
Though Council, largely through Gym, secured $7.2 million in funding to deploy mobile mental health units, the program failed to be widespread after its implementation, with two units accounting for city-wide responses.
“Philadelphia is consistently in a pilot phase, we experiment, we scrambled dollars for small amounts here, and they're there. Some of them show promise and demonstration, but we don't leverage them, and so they remain dysfunctional,” Gym said.
Asked whether she believed the city should defund the police, “I am not coming in to dismantle departments that I myself run.”
“I'm here to make [dysfuntional agencies] more responsive and more responsible to communities to make them more functional, competent than they've ever been,” Gym said, describing her approach to victim's services.
“Rather than just seeing them through the eyes of a prosecutor. I'm looking at them through the eyes of our neighbors because they live next door,” Gym continued.
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