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Helen Gym is AL DIA´s person of the year for her work in Philadelphia City Hall.
Photo: Michelle Myers/AL DIA News

Helen Gym, Person of the year: Beyond the Councilmember

If you look at the past year in Philly politics, no one has won more for more people than Helen Gym. Her approach to politics base on people has won over…

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Hidden in the jungle

May 26th, 2022

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Councilmember Helen Gym is as comfortable among people in a crowd as she is giving speeches at a podium. Her ability to move within and between different groups might be the secret to the movement she is leading both in Philadelphia and on the national stage.

It’s enough to see Helen Gym just once speaking in front of a crowd or circulating among protesters to understand that being around people is where she feels most at home. 

But, the Lizzo fanatic confesses that she also enjoys time spent alone, writing, thinking, reflecting, and reading.

One of her favorite topics are books about what other people are doing to change the world around them, like “People like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy ́s Door” by Sayu Bhojwani.

“I read for fun, sometimes I like to read poetry, but mostly I am a journalist, so I like reading journalism,” she explains. “I love the idea of the intrepid journalist who would go everywhere, see things and change the world.” 

It’s a curiosity and a passion that comes from her childhood growing up in Columbus, Ohio, as “the only Asian kid.” 

Feeling that she did not fit the model of a “blonde cheerleader,” she pursued other interests, like reading,  and looked up to characters like Wonder Woman

The description of the superhero, Diana, says:

“Beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, swifter than Hermes, and stronger than Hercules, Princess Diana of Themyscira fights for peace in Man's World.”

Just like the journalist in her books and Wonder Woman, Helen Gym has dedicated her career to seeking justice and supporting others in that fight.

In 2000, before she ran for public office, Gym led the campaign “Stadium Out of Chinatown Coalition,” that stopped the construction of a baseball stadium in the neighborhood in an attempt to prevent gentrification and displacement of the area’s longtime residents.

Eight years later, she found herself fighting a similar battle, opposing the Foxwoods Casino construction on Chinatown. 

Over the years, Gym has worked as a community organizer for education reform, co-founded Parents United for Public Education and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, and has even been honored by the White House with a Cesar Chavez Champion of Change.

In 2016, Gym decided to step into politics and make change happen from the legislative branch. Her background in activism, the support of her family, and the coalition of groups and communities she had worked with as an organizer helped her become the first Asian-American woman elected to Philadelphia City Council with 145,087 votes.

“Time is limited, I definitely feel the pressure of time and you know, opportunity can only happen at certain points in time,” Gym reflects. “[As children of immigrants] We don't have the privilege of being able to make mistakes. And because of that, I think I will take this time that I've got very seriously.”

She believes her widespread support comes from the fact that “people resonate with someone who is cognizant of what this moment means.”

But the hard work of uniting people with different voices, and different priorities, is its own challenge. 

“The preparation leading up to that, the relationships that you build, how you talk about things in ways that are inclusive, and expansive, that is what makes people excited,” Gym says. 

Pushing the “progressive”

If you look back on 2019 in Philadelphia, it was another year the city took a leap to the left in both leadership and policy. Many would call it a “progressive” push, but Gym isn’t big on labels. 

“It is kind of funny, but I saw this ad during the elections that was like, ‘the radical left is trying to take over Philadelphia,’” Gym said. Her reaction? “If the radical left means quality public schools, clean drinking water, and a roof over people's heads, then I'm happy to be part of that mission and vision,” she told AL DIA. 

But if anything, she considers her work to be more "populist than progressive.” Yet, this imposed characterization, she says, comes from seldom-updated political language, that brands her as “progressive” for supporting legislation and movements that “provide immediate and fundamental human rights needs” for people. 

“What’s happening to their kids in schools? Do they feel safe on the street? Can they afford transit and a bus pass to work? Does the water turn on and will it be safe? Can I predict that I will be able to pay my rent this month?” said Gym of the questions that drive her focus as a legislator.

In 2018, that meant fighting for and passing a Fair Work Week bill to expand workers’ rights in the city.

Inside City Council’s chambers this year, she has both introduced and backed over 230 bills to continue that message.

For one, after securing money for a legal fund to represent residents facing eviction, Gym built on the victory by passing a bill this year requiring free legal counsel for low-income Philadelphians.

She’s also been a major part of making Philadelphia one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the country.

In the area of transgender rights, Gym introduced and passed three bills. The first deals with potential discrimination at Philly’s youth-serving organizations by requiring them to create policies protecting trans and non-binary youth, and then display those policies on their websites and inside their physical locations.

The second bill updated City Hall’s historic facilities and the rest of the city’s by requiring gender neutral bathrooms. The final bill expanded the definitions of gender identity and sexual orientation in the city’s Fair Practice Ordinance.

Another bill Gym also sponsored in 2019, alongside the bill’s primary legislative sponsor, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, was the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which will provide labor protections to the city’s 16,000 nannies, housekeepers, and caretakers in what has been acknowledged by many as the strongest such legislation in the country. 

But for all she’s achieved inside City Hall, a large part of Gym’s impact and appeal also comes from her past as an organizer - and the ways in which she continues to apply the organizer mindset as a councilmember.

If you ask Gym about her favorite achievements from the past year, both involve organizing people outside of her office behind issues and getting results. 

Issue-wise, she’s most proud of her office’s efforts around calling for the closing of Glen Mills Reform School after a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation revealed extensive abuse by faculty towards students. The school was eventually closed.

Other organizing efforts from Gym’s office over the year included fighting the closure of Hahnemann University Hospital alongside its thousands of employees (which also led to her passing legislation in Council), standing with DACA recipients part of the Home is Here movement when they came to Philly, and calling for the closures of the Philadelphia Refinery after part of it exploded and the Berks County detention center for its housing of detained immigrant families.

2019 elections

All that organizing outside her office and across the city has made Gym by far the most popular City Councilmember in Philadelphia. If you don’t believe it, just look at the vote tallies from this year’s primary and general elections. 

Gym does benefit from being an at-large, city-wide candidate, but her approximately 107,000 votes in May’s primary were more than anyone had received in recent history

For perspective, in 2007, when Mayor Jim Kenney was the most popular councilmember, he brought in about 95,000 votes. 

Gym followed up her performance in May by reeling in over 200,000 in the November general election.

Gym’s influence extended beyond her own victory. The councilmember’s support was a significant factor in the success of third-party candidate Kendra Brooks in claiming one of the two at-large minority seats as a rep from the Working Families Party.

Gym and Brooks are friends from their days of organizing around education. For her, Brooks’ triumph was also one of her favorite moments of the year. 

Back in November, AL DIA was present at Brooks’ election party. Gym was one of the people invited to be on stage with Brooks as she announced the results. 

When her victory was announced, Gym could not contain her excitement. With bright eyes and a big smile on her face, she jumped and clapped, waiting her turn to give Brooks a celebratory hug.

It was an uncommon scene in a field, and a society, that tends to pit women against each other.

“I think is essential for women to support women, but I also think it is incredibly hard to do it,” Gym explained. “It is not like, ‘Oh! We are all women, we all get along,’ the opposite is true. We are encouraged not to get along so you have to very consciously break that. When Kendra won I feel like we made it together, we did it together.”

It was a victory hard earned by Brooks in the midst of Gym going against the wishes of the Democratic establishment in Philly to support her campaign. There was pushback against Gym’s decision to cross the aisle, but to her thinking, the strength of a wider movement she sees herself as being a part of is what prevailed.

Her widespread success places her on a short list of potential candidates for mayor in 2023. Gym admits the mention is exciting, but at the moment she is more focused on accomplishing more goals over the next four years.  

After all, she has never been into “celebrity politicians.” For her, “Council is not about us individually becoming a superstar, is about us pulling a body together that could harness the power to really create amounts of change.” 

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