Hon. Helen Gym
Councilmember, City of Philadelphia
HOW DID YOU CHOOSE A PATHWAY IN PUBLIC SERVICE?
I come out of 20 years of organizing in Philadelphia’s Asian American, immigrant, and public education communities, organizing for years to make our issues known. I became a teacher and an organizer, and ran major campaigns to save Chinatown, fight for affordable housing and public schools, make Philly a Sanctuary City, and win a federal civil rights case to protect immigrant youth from harassment at school. I decided to run when a former Pennsylvania governor cut a billion dollars from the state education budget and our city closed down two dozen public schools in some of our poorest neighborhoods. I had worked for years to invest in schools, young people, and to rebuild our sense of the public good. Now it was time to take that people power and turn it into an unstoppable political force. There was a huge opportunity in the next election, and I was looking for a candidate to support who would carry forward a real vision for our issues. And after waiting and waiting, I realized that the person who could do it the best was me. I was the one who had to step up or this moment was going to pass right by.
WHO INSPIRES YOU AND WHY?
I’m inspired by the organizing community of Philadelphia and especially young people in this city. This city is filled with people who show up every day to fight and organize and push our city forward because they believe in a bigger vision. I always say that we only get what we’re organized to take—that’s what Philly does. The dynamics of power change when organized communities take action, and I’m proud every day to live in and represent communities who live that truth.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR AAPI GIRLS AND WOMEN WHO WANT TO PURSUE A CAREER IN PUBLIC SERVICE?
First, our world needs you. You don’t need to have political experience to run for office — I didn’t. But you do have to have experiences which motivate you to run with passion and conviction and make you authentic and compelling to people meeting you for the very first time. Your experiences as a woman are valuable. Your ability to communicate your story is essential. Second, public service doesn’t start with holding office. It starts with engaging in the issues and communities which inspire us to take collective action for change. Because AAPI and AAPI women are so marginalized and stereotyped, you need to take time to unpack and understand issues – from domestic violence survivors to immigrant women in the workforce, from public schools and education to language access and anti-Asian bias. These are not issues that are going to be in the mainstream in the political and governmental world. We need AAPI leaders who will champion these issues from a place of experience and a deep knowledge and understanding of what’s actually at stake. Finally, don’t be afraid of the noise that is democracy. Too often, those in public service shy away from spaces of conflict and uncertainty. They move away from communities in crisis because people are not perceived as being “civil” enough. But the conflicts many of our communities are facing require us to become skilled in race politics, to challenge gender stereotypes and biases, and to take on patriarchy and xenophobia because these are the forces that tear our communities apart and threaten our ability to organize and broaden movements for justice. Look at what’s moving through our streets and communities: the fight for $15, DREAM Act, Black Lives Matter, and stopping the privatization of our public schools. These campaigns are moving at the grassroots and local level. So if you care about public service, hit the streets and don’t be afraid to be in the moment when democracy is shaping itself.