Helen Gym - The Fighter

portrait by Mark Likosky

portrait by Mark Likosky

“The central question of whether we are going to invest in a public system that educates all of our children with equity and justice—in a city where race and poverty play so heavily into their life experiences—is not just a question about our city’s future, but our standing as a moral society.” — HG

The gloves are off. Helen Gym is a self-described fighter, and she wants to build up the youth of the city with solid education that gives them a fighting chance to succeed. Gym is also an activist, artist and mother, and this fall she hopes to add one more moniker to that list: City Councilwoman. “I have three children who are finding their passion in life and coming to terms with deep questions about privilege and inequity,” says Gym. “Raising them in the city brought our family into common struggle with so many communities working on those same issues. It’s helped define our understanding of equity and fairness, and why we have to work so hard to ensure it for everyone.”

Gym helped to found two public school advocacy groups, Public School Notebook and Parents United for Public Education, and wants to counter the notion that “parents in city schools don’t care enough. We clearly do!” She cites as just one example working with others to get justice for kids at South Philadelphia High, which had been plagued with racially charged violence. “I helped lead a diverse coalition of communities to support immigrant youth who held a School District accountable to the safety of its own students,” says Gym.“This was more than just a fleeting headline. We saw a groundbreaking federal civil rights ruling in our case.” Gym says the effort helped officials at the school see an alternative to “the punitive mindset that often frames the education of children of color.”

She hopes her role in City Council will be a continuation of her life-long work, and she wants to equally represent longtime residents and new immigrants. “Philadelphia is in a great place right now to be asking—and leading on—big questions for our future direction, particularly around education.”