Helen Gym advances, and Mayor Nutter inches warily back. She waves a thick stack of papers at him, each sheath a complaint lodged by parents lamenting the calamitous conditions in Philadelphia’s reeling public schools. There’s the kid with dangerous asthma at the school without a nurse on hand. The dyslexic, orphaned high-school senior applying for colleges with no counselor to lean on. The bullying victim who fled Overbrook High only to find it impossible to enroll at another school.
“This is what we’re fighting against,” Gym tells Nutter. The Mayor is just a few yards from his office door, but he’s the one shifting his feet, looking to get away.
Minutes earlier, Gym had wrapped up a news conference in the ornate Mayor’s Reception Room, where, with the assistance of City Council, she’d usurped a podium usually used by Nutter and his invited guests. Gym and her allies were there to tout their latest pressure tactic: written complaints designed to compel the state to meet basic education standards and shake loose some badly needed dollars for the district.
“It would be nice to have your support, Mayor,” Gym tells him. Nutter issues a few noncommittal mumbles, cleans his glasses, and back-steps for the stairway. Gym shrugs. Powerful figures often look for the exits when she approaches.
That’s what happens when you develop a rep as perhaps Philadelphia’s preeminent public agitator. Relentless, whip-smart, meticulously prepared and utterly fearless, Gym—a private citizen who works without the heft of any meaningful institutional support—has managed to build herself one of the city’s largest bully pulpits.