Helen Gym Is Ready for Battle Over Roe, the Sixers and More
The current city councilmember and potential mayoral candidate talks abortion, authoritarianism and Abbott Elementary.
She started out as a journalist and then a teacher before becoming a community organizer and an activist. Now, City Councilmember Helen Gym is, perhaps, the most popular potential candidate to replace checked-out mayor Jim Kenney, with the election coming up next year. Here, she talks abortion, authoritarianism and, of course, Abbott Elementary.
Hi. I’m glad this interview could come together, and I just saw the photos. They look great.
Oh, good. I’m always nervous about photos. I used to laugh because the Inquirer would always run this same photo of me at a mic, yelling. I had on a winter coat. They would run it in summer, no matter what the article was about. Helen Gym Announces Fund to Support Blah Blah Blah, and there would be the photo of me, yelling. Always. It’s time to retire that photo.
I promise we won’t run it.
I’d normally kick off an interview with a city official by talking about the city. But with everything going on in the country right now, it sometimes feels like we’re on the verge of a civil war. How did we get here?
The nation has been stratifying for years, and I don’t think it should be any surprise to see all the economic inequity in the nation leading to strife. There’s been this dramatic wealth that has been created over a relatively short period of time, and yet we have abject poverty on a scale that is hard to imagine.
Assuming I’m up on my local statistics, Philly is still the poorest big city in the country, right?
Yes. Our city has 37 percent of its children living in poverty. It’s unimaginable. But I want to be thoughtful about this moment we are in. I don’t want people to feel paralyzed or helpless or so disgusted that they become disengaged. Now is the time to engage — to say that the traditional ways we’ve been doing things are not gonna work right now, and what we need are new voices, creative approaches, and new coalitions to form. Our democracy is in the act of creation and re-creation,- and I hope that is something people understand. This isn’t just about strife and division and hate and permanency. It’s about people trying to figure out where we’re going. It’s about unifying, pulling our country and our communities together.
Is City Council the best place for you to help accomplish those lofty goals?
I came to politics very late in my life. But I believe now more than ever that the true power lies outside of City Hall and state legislatures and Congress. I come back to the communities and organizing groups that have labored and struggled for voice and visibility through times that have been as bad as if not worse than where we find ourselves now. We need to stay focused on the things that are essential to dignity and city livability and the city’s vitality, and then we will be on the right path — not only pulling through a crisis, but building for a future that doesn’t yet exist.
You mentioned the city’s livability and vitality. The Sixers’ planned arena abutting Chinatown would affect both — for the good or the bad, depending on your perspective. Where do you stand on this project?
I’m extremely skeptical. This is a vanity project for the Sixers. They just want to slap “76 Place” in the middle of Center City. And Chinatown was never included in these discussions. Meanwhile, on the other side of Market Street, you have hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks and lots of broken promises. This is a conversation about what you want Market Street to become. We need something that showcases the diversity of Philadelphia, our walkability, our culture, our small businesses and our families. And that will grow the city.
We’re two months from Election Day, and we could very well wind up with a Republican governor and legislature. How concerned are you that people will be unable to get abortions in Pennsylvania in just a few months?
We are one election away from a nightmare. Depending on what happens in November, the worst-case scenario could be upon us, and it would be the tipping point, leading us into an erosion of fundamental human rights.
There has been much talk about what other rights could be targeted, at least theoretically. I’m in an interracial marriage, as are you, and this was a right guaranteed by SCOTUS 55 years ago, five years before Roe. Is it irrational to think that our marriages could be rendered illegal one day?
It’s not about what we think. We have to act as if the rights we love could disappear. We have to continue to fight. Roe was the law of the land for 50 years. Whether you choose to exercise a right or not doesn’t matter. That a right existed benefited all of us. These laws and protections we are talking about are fundamentally rooted in the right to privacy. Who you marry. Who you love. The right to contraception and reproductive health and how you choose to enact it. We’re not in the realm of speculation. We are in the realm of having to protect our fundamental human rights and freedoms, and we need to protect them as if our lives depended on it, every single day. These things cannot be taken for granted. The American experiment is fragile. This is not about a piece of paper from two centuries ago. It’s about working together now. We need to protect one another. That should be the lasting lesson of the Supreme Court decision.
Anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination became front-page news during COVID, with Donald Trump throwing around the term “China virus” constantly. What has your experience as a woman of Asian descent been of late, and prior?
Racism and anti-immigrant hate were a huge part of shaping my childhood and early life. I experienced it as a kid growing up outside of Columbus, Ohio, in the ’70s. I experienced it when I worked as a journalist in a small town in the middle of Ohio during the ’90s. I experienced it when a man on Walnut Street in 2006 called me a “rice N-word” over a parking spot. And I really experienced it in 2017 after I made remarks that the Rizzo statue should come down. Death threats. Racial slurs. People who wanted to see me dragged around by a rickshaw with chopsticks in my hair. Again, society is fragile. There are a few things that hold us together and many things that can rip us apart, and when those things get broken, when the norms of behavior get violently or carelessly or purposefully disregarded, people’s lives are at stake.
A lot of people said they’d move to Canada if Trump won in 2016 and again in 2020. Now, I’ve heard from more than a few locals that they’ll leave Pennsylvania if Doug Mastriano wins the governorship in November. Collingswood is suddenly looking pretty good.
But injustice is a disease, and it spreads. The problems don’t go away because you’re not in the middle of them or because you’re not directly impacted by them for the moment. Inhumanity and injustice will exist whether or not you choose to extricate yourself just because you have the privilege to do so. I don’t begrudge people who feel they have to leave, but if you do leave, you need to use that privilege. You have to fight like hell for those who choose to stay or who have to stay and face what is coming. We need to fight. Just like we fought in 2009 when immigrant youth were being beaten up at a high school in South Philly while school district officials shrugged. Just like we did in 2013 when our public schools were being closed and we had elected leaders on national television saying this is just what happens. We all need to stand up and do what we can to make a difference. We have made a difference. And we will make a difference. We have to.
It seems like part of the problem we have in this city and this country is that the “two sides” can’t sit down and talk to each other. There’s just this very “You’re either with us or against us” approach. I noticed that you and one of your colleagues recently went after Amen Brown, the Black Democratic state rep from West Philly, on Twitter after he spent an hour with Dr. Oz. He wound up being treated like a traitor. Why can’t Amen Brown hang out with Dr. Oz, a prominent person who could have a pretty good shot at defeating John Fetterman for the Senate seat?
Well, I would dispute some of those characterizations, but we don’t have time. I’m all for discourse and intelligent conversation. But we have given far too much credence to individuals who have promoted a complete dismantling of American democracy, the elimination of any form of a social contract, the eradication of the social commons. We’ve already given the people who have promoted and pushed for these things and who ignore truth and facts too much time, and much to our detriment.
How much of your time and energy are being spent on the upcoming elections, to make sure Josh Shapiro defeats Doug Mastriano and to make sure John Fetterman defeats Dr. Oz?
I hope that everything that I do makes politics come to life for people every day and not just on Election Day, not just at the ballot box. Politics need to be a part of people’s everyday lives. We are in a perilous moment for American democracy: Our basic rights are being threatened, and we are fending off an unreal level of authoritarianism and right-wing extremism, all of which is being supported by the funding from billionaires, especially in our state legislature. But all of that is not as dangerous as cynicism, apathy, and the belief that nothing can change. They are the real enemies.
Mayor Kenney has checked out. He no longer wants the job. With the mayoral primary coming up in May, do you want it?
I didn’t come into politics for jobs and titles. I came into it to make a difference and to prove that seismic change is possible through the mass mobilization of people and a values-based mission.
Okay, sure. But … are you going to run or not?
All I can say right now is this: All possibilities are open, and I think Philadelphia citizens will have a real choice to make in 2023 about who can lead this city with a bold vision.
The biggest immediate problem the next mayor will face is, arguably, gun violence. The city feels unsafe in a way it hasn’t before. And more and more Philadelphians are applying to carry concealed guns, presumably because of the soaring crime numbers and that perception of instability. What do you say to a law-abiding citizen who feels the need to carry a gun?
There’s no form of public safety that comes through individuals, and certainly not through individuals carrying guns. The safest places are the places where people don’t feel like weapons are necessary, and it is our responsibility as city leaders to show that this city and its institutions can pull together to make safety a reality. But when the institutions are in disarray, as they are right now, and when leadership is absent, things can feel like they are spiraling out of control. So while I can understand people feeling that the city seems lawless and chaotic, carrying a gun is not a blueprint for a public-safety agenda. There is a tremendous amount of work we can and must do immediately to address public-safety concerns.
We’ve certainly laid out both short-term and long-term agendas that are critically important. Things like being aggressive on illegal gun possession and addressing and massively ramping up gun-violence intervention programs and focusing on individuals who are most likely to harm someone or themselves be harmed. This is not a random group of individuals. Many can be known to us.
Statistics show that gun violence in Philadelphia is concentrated around a geographical space. Ten zip codes. Twenty-five schools. We need to draw the net a little tighter in those areas to deliver services and focus on those persons who are high-risk, and we need to form immediate and broader collaborations with other forms of law enforcement, like the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Attorney General, and take action on the ground in these neighborhoods and communities. We’re already doing some of this work at the Juvenile Justice Center, identifying young people who are being released and who identify as high-risk or are identified as high-risk, and making it very clear what they need, whether that’s housing, a new school assignment, a short-term emergency plan if there is retaliation danger, relocation money. We need to do this before these young people are released, rather than tracking them down afterward when something goes wrong.
What can we do outside of the criminal justice system?
So much. I grew up very poor. I am the daughter of immigrants who had very little coming here, but I had a great public school. I had libraries that were open. I had a park that was safe and a recreation center where I could meet so many diverse new friends. Here, we closed down dozens of public schools. We still don’t have a single library open on weekends. We don’t have a single rec center open on weekends unless it’s privately funded. We deny potential for so many in our own population. There isn’t really a path toward prosperity or growth no matter how many towers we build, no matter how many neighborhoods get built up. We need to make sure that everything we do seeks to alleviate or end the misery of the 37 percent of our kids who are impoverished.
These problems won’t be solved overnight. What’s on your immediate agenda for this new term of City Council?
There is no question that on day one, we will introduce a package of bills to protect abortion rights and reproductive health care. I am also very serious about making sure one of the most successful programs the city has undertaken recently, the eviction diversion program, continues to grow and expand. I will be focused on our city prisons, where we’ve seen a horrific number of homicides occur. I will work on making us a healthier, greener city. And, of course, my heart is around the public schools. We have a new superintendent. The state has delivered a budget that is the largest amount of funds to our public-school system in years, but money doesn’t substitute for vision. The city and school district desperately need a vision for public schools and student needs — particularly mental health and well-being. We have a tremendous opportunity to build the city of the future through modern public schools that anchor families to our city.
On the subject of schools, I must note that the second season of Abbott Elementary premieres on September 21st. Are you a fan?
I’m not just a fan. I’m a dedicated fan. It’s a wonderful, joyous half-hour that celebrates the heart and grit of Philadelphia and does it with so much love and care for everyday people who are dedicating their lives to children and a better city. And yet the show never averts its eyes from the hardship and struggle. Quinta Brunson is a true champion for our city and for the teaching profession. This is the best thing on TV. The show gives us hope. And everybody needs hope.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published as “The Fighter” in the September 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.