Helen Gym Is Not Here to Tinker Around the Edges
The progressive Philadelphia mayoral candidate wants you to reimagine what it means to build a movement.
“The only thing that is fixed or that could be fixed is the idea that you stay silent when everything is happening around us.… Our task is to not stay silent.”
This is what Helen Gym told The New Republic Sunday, just hours before she took the stage alongside Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally with over 1,000 attendees.
Gym is among a crowded field of candidates vying to earn the Democratic nomination for Philadelphia mayor during Tuesday’s primary. Recent polls have shown Gym tied with at least two other candidates, and a whole front-runner’s worth of voters who remain undecided.
But what makes Gym’s candidacy distinct is her track record for challenging conventional modes of thinking—whether on preventing crime; building safer communities; or what it means to be an activist, a teacher, or a politician.
The Philadelphia race follows the victory of Brandon Johnson in Chicago’s mayoral election, in which the former educator himself won a platform that reimagined public safety.
Gym spoke with TNR about what brought her to the race at all, her long history fighting for her neighbors, and why relentless action in the face of stacked odds is not “blind hope” but rather just building capacity to fight bigger and bigger battles.
Prem Thakker: How are you?
Helen Gym: That’s a hard question. I feel good. No, we feel really great. Today is a great day. It’s been a great weekend.… People are energized. People are listening, paying attention. They’ve been watching debate. You know, it’s great.
P.T.: Do you listen to music, and if so, what have you been listening to lately?
H.G.: Oh, I do … I’m obviously a Lizzo fan of course. About Damn Time. About Damn Time is our song.
P.T.: Could you tell me about your time as a teacher, what you learned about the city during that time, and how that propelled you further into activism?
H.G.: Yeah, I don’t see those as being separate, just to be clear. I mean, one of the things that I think I really loved about teaching was that it just opened up a world of activism. I would obviously teach during the day, but right after school I get on the 47 bus and take it 10 miles or so into Chinatown, where I would be working at Asian Americans United to stop communities from being displaced, to make sure that people’s civil and voting rights were upheld, and to have an even bigger space to talk about education and healthier families and strong communities and neighborhoods.
Teaching also opened me up to a broader national movement. I joined national-level organizations, including some which are now defunct, but national-level organizations that were really focused on teaching and learning curriculum, vibrant, multiethnic curricular practices. You know, how teachers can lead from the classroom, as well as being the friend of a classroom, and real investment in young people. So to me the classroom was my profession, but teacher activism was my life. And I helped start a citywide education newspaper during that time. I joined the founding board of an arts organization that is still in existence today. And then, of course, continued to actively mobilize in Chinatown and with immigrant communities that were fighting mass detention and deportation as well as mass incarceration. In other words, education never felt limited. It felt like it was just an expansive introduction to a world of hope and activity and change.
P.T.: You use the words “hope” and “expansive.” That speaks to this seeming upsurge of candidates from all over the country—whether it’s Jamaal Bowman, or Brandon Johnson, or you—former educators who, in coming from the education system, seem to hold this sort of intimate understanding of how we perhaps are failing children, or how we could be doing even better for them or giving them more hope, or by building our school system, we could build a better future. I wonder if you’ve thought about that pattern.
H.G.: Definitely. And, can I just add to this, Congresswoman Hayes, who was Teacher of the Year, out of Connecticut. And Latoya Cantrell, who is the mayor of New Orleans. She didn’t come out of education and teaching, but she came out with a strong identity as a mother and an activist, post-Katrina. I think what is very clear is that for many of us … I believe that building the care and keeping of children and, by extension, their families, communities, and neighborhoods, as well as the public institutions that serve them are fundamental to our politics.
If you can leave a child behind, right, if you can deny them a functioning public school, arts and music opportunities, a roof over their heads, you will leave behind their parents, you will leave behind their neighborhoods, and you will ultimately leave behind that city. And I think many of us who have dedicated our lives to building stronger youth and families understand that this is not an education agenda. It is an economic security agenda. It is a public safety agenda. It is a, you know, city revitalization agenda, and that’s what we’re trying to lead with. I think we have gotten some things twisted about what actually drives the American economy, what helps cities grow, and what builds a resilient and prosperous and safer community. And that is actually by investing in children and families, and the institutions that surround them. And people who have like, understood that, rather than just using it as a platform talking point, are increasingly winning in local offices all the way up to the federal level, and I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a healthy thing.
P.T.: You’ve been active for so many years now. I wonder if you reflected on perhaps how you’ve evolved over time … who you were before, who you are now, what worldviews you’ve refined over time throughout your activism and time teaching in the community?
H.G.: I learned very early on that our politics never started with politicians. They always started with us. And that is because, in times of crisis, when encountering people who had the power, the title, and the money to actually effectuate change, I often saw the least amount of creativity and too often the least amount of courage. And I never got that when I was organizing in communities. In communities, you found a clarity of purpose, a level of prioritization, and the need for urgent action that I never got out of City Hall, state legislatures, or Congress. And we need that kind of clarity of purpose, that sense of energy, and that sense of urgency right now. Our politics are stuck, and we get them unstuck by mobilizing at the local level and seeing real concrete changes happen.
Certain things pop up in the media now and then, and movements last. So, for me, I’ve always been invested in the sustainability of movements, growing new leadership, expanding out. One of the most important things that I think is particularly needed within the progressive movement is an ability to deliver concrete outcomes at scale that actually make a difference in people’s lives. I wanted to show that somebody who came out of real community struggle and was driven by the need for transformation had to deliver when I got into office. That’s how we ended a state takeover and put nurses and counselors and social workers back into our schools and led a $500 million initiative to really repair and build schools inside and out. That’s how I was able to deliver safe drinking water to every child in every school; how we created the most successful eviction prevention program in the country that slashed evictions by almost 70 percent during the pandemic, kept over 50,000 people housed, and distributed $250 million in rent assistance; that’s how we expanded labor rights for 130,000 hourly workers who needed a fair advance schedule. We’re not here to tinker around the edges.
P.T.: This sort of ambition seems all the more relevant in a race like many other city elections, in which crime permeates throughout so much of it. How have you navigated such a race, and what do you think a victory like yours would signal, as you’re proffering this different vision of how to address crime and public safety—and reimagining and transforming it in a way?
H.G.: Yeah, so first, I’m very clear that my work got started around safety. You know that a lot of our work was about safety and creating a sense of community safety, for neighbors and people who are long left out of those conversations. My work got started with victims of crime and victims of hate crime, for example. I was on the ground almost 15 years ago to turn around a public high school that was considered one of the most dangerous in the country, and we were able to turn it around in less than two years, with a real, energized level of work that changed the culture within this school and the school district. Retrained teachers and educators that made sure that safety is a whole city mission. So to me, this conversation about what keeps us safe is not different from the work that I have been doing. So much is on the line, and so much of our resources are going toward things which have been limited in their ability to actually not just react to crime but to prevent it. I’ve been very clear: Violence is rooted in disinvestment. And thus a safety mission must be rooted in investment.
That’s why we’ve talked about an absolute, immediate response to crime, but I’ve called for a state of emergency on gun violence, which approaches it from a public health perspective. I talked about promoting more detectives so we can actually solve cases, fixing our 911 response time, and taking a targeted look at individuals who are, in the past, violent, and making sure that we take illegal guns off the streets. But I’m also very clear that the investment agenda is also about a real emphasis on mental health resources and an expanded effort to really deliver 24/7 citywide crisis response units, so we can deal with concerns around mental health, homelessness, and addiction. I talked about a guaranteed jobs plan for youth in particular, so that we can get young people onto a path for opportunity. And I’ve talked about a real investment in our public schools over the next 10 years. So we can actually modernize them and make them be an anchor institution in neighborhoods and communities, and an affordable housing plan that actually is about affordability for residents and not just for developers.
P.T.: Have you thought back to any moments, whether throughout the campaign or beforehand, when you’ve seen success in changing someone’s mind and introducing them to the sort of convention-changing way that you’re introducing?
H.G.: I mean, in some ways, like, that is sort of my whole body of work, I think—going into a situation where the politics are pretty monstrous and trying to transform the ways in which people see one another.
I think back to a time when we were fighting the construction of a stadium in Chinatown. It was like one of our first big really at-scale battles. And we were doing all these different public forums and everything like that, and odds were obviously stacked against us. You had the mayor, the governor, you had Major League Baseball, and all City Council and moneyed interests lined up … and you had a largely immigrant, non-English-speaking community on the other side. And I remember at one of our public forums, a very young person came up to me, who was in college, and asked me, “Do you think you’re doing the wrong thing, by giving people hope that something could happen?”
And I think what I said was that nothing is actually fixed in this world, and the only thing that is fixed or that could be fixed is the idea that you stay silent when everything is happening around us. And I said that our task is to not stay silent, and to continue to exhort for our world … even when all the odds are stacked against us, then it’s even more important to imagine a world that people deserve and that people need right now. And I think that that is a root of—it’s not a blind hope—it is taking action and teaching us how to build our capacity to continue to take on bigger and bigger things.
And, you know, I’m not sure if he actually bought that. But I will say: We did win.
P.T.: What do you see as not only the spirit of Philadelphia, but also the aspiration?
H.G.: We’re the original city of rebels and revolutionaries, and we are here to write a blueprint for a new city and ultimately for this nation that’s centered around the needs of people in communities. Nobody fights harder for Philadelphia than Philadelphians themselves. And I think that is why we are the city that we are, and it’s pretty fucking awesome.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.