Massive resistance has become a hallmark of American life under the Trump administration. Millions of people have clogged airports to protest Trump’s travel and refugee ban, stood with indigenous people at Standing Rock, and taken to the streets in the Women’s Marches, the March for Science, and the recent March for Our Lives.
This resistance extends beyond the nucleus of individuals organizing: Entire cities like Philadelphia are confronting threats to racial and socioeconomic justice, and showing us what bolder movements to end poverty, water insecurity, and mass incarceration look like at the local level.
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I spoke with Councilmember At-Large Helen Gym, one of Philadelphia’s vanguard leaders in the city’s social justice movement, to learn more about her work.
Rejane Frederick: What does it mean to be a social justice legislator, especially in a nation that is struggling to find its moral footing?
Councilmember Helen Gym: I come out of immigrant rights work and public education work, and an Asian American movement that tried to center multi-racial coalition building. What we’re seeing right now is a merging of a lot of issues that are bringing a lot of different groups of people together—connecting interwoven systems that bring together housing, schools, criminal justice, immigrant rights, women’s issues.
“Racism is not about just your intent. It’s about the effect that you have on other people.”
For me, what it means in this moment is not that our work has changed or that the issues have changed. They’ve become more heightened. And the failure to unify across many different coalitions will be the progressive movement’s failure to win in a moment when we should unite. But we can’t do it if we are siloed, if we don’t build these multi-racial coalitions.
RF: Regarding unifying across coalitions, in 2016 you said, “Poverty and inequality are the crippling injustices that lie at the heart of the justice struggle.” Can you say more about that?
HG: For me, the indifference to poverty is incredibly profound. It’s deeply rooted in racism. It’s deeply rooted in othering. It’s deeply rooted in judgment and condemnation. And it’s deeply rooted in America’s tendency to be hyper-individualized, to focus on individual people’s problems, and not look at the broader systems that profit from poverty—not just allow poverty to continue, but actually profit from it. When we keep schools down and we fund other schools to excess. When we fail to invest in housing, when we abandon public spaces and we keep our minimum wage at their lowest levels. When we don’t fight to diversify our unions and the few paths that people of color have to living wages, all those kinds of things.
Of course, when you deal with poverty and inequality, you’re dealing with people who are in desperate circumstances. They’re going to lose their school. They’re going to lose their home. They could lose their children. These are not people who have the luxury of saying “I’ll fix this in 10 years.” You’ve got to be there in a moment of crisis and we’ve got to move people through a moment of crisis and then build for broader things.
Since I come out of grassroots movements I feel strongly about people’s development. My hope is that I pass the torch. That is the goal. To build and strengthen a bigger, broader movement. You take and occupy a moment in time, in political office—it is one lever, but not the ultimate lever.
It’s great to see people being excited about elected office, but I need to know what you’re going to do when you get in there. Who are you going to bring in there with you? What are you going to champion, and how will communities be better off when you leave?
I’m interested in how we move systems toward significant change. You’re just one small piece, and the power really lies in the grassroots movement-building that will sustain that work far beyond anyone’s term in office.
RF: You’ve talked about the ways being a community organizer has informed your work on the city council, and you’ve also talked about your theory of change. How does real change happen?
HG: We’re dealing with systems that have massive amounts of dysfunction, large failures, gaps, long-term instability, and people in power who try to patch it up, bandage it, repackage it, and rebrand it, all that kind of stuff. So I’m thoughtful about how the people who live the consequences of the policies that we create are the people who experience the most pain, but they also have a lot of solutions about what this looks like.
The really profound stuff for me comes out of some of the experiences I’ve had around public education, when the state and elected officials and civic actors and many people who had money, titles, and the power to fix something, simply walked away. They abandoned the public schools in Philadelphia, largely in the state of Pennsylvania as well. We closed down 24 schools and laid off thousands of staff. We left kids without nurses and counselors. We shut down their school libraries, abandoned them in classrooms of 60 or more, and then we said, “I wonder how they’ll do? Let’s test the hell out of them.”
I’ve always thought that was a very sick social experiment hoisted upon black, brown, and immigrant kids who live those consequences. And that, to me, is the definition of what racism is. It’s purposeful. I don’t care about intent. Racism is not about just your intent. It’s about the effect that you have on other people. Who picked up the pieces of that? It wasn’t the superintendent, the mayors, the governors, and the school board. The people who pushed hardest for the solutions were the parents, educators, organized student groups, immigrant families who had no other choice but to go to their public schools. And their work was powerful. It was moving; it was rooted outside of the halls of the School Reform Commission (SRC), and maybe outside of city halls.
Those get formed in your school yards, your backyard barbeques, when they marry with real policy, data, and information. You start working on organizing, you get groups and foundations to fund organizing. Then you start to see real movement for change. And the reality is that, yeah, it took us 17 years but I can point to so many more parents that can speak so clearly about what’s been happening that when Betsy DeVos was confirmed as secretary of education, they could take things on in that moment. They’re not surprised, they’ve heard this before, and they know to challenge it.
RF: I’m thinking about what you’ve mentioned in Philadelphia, with the charter schools and privatization movement, and the very real questions about authentic investments in public institutions. What do they look like? Why do they matter? Why is it important to continue to invest in our public institutions even when they deliver sometimes disappointing results?
HG: I don’t think people should allow dysfunctional public institutions to operate on autopilot just for the sake of saying that they support it. The reason why public institutions get targeted is because they don’t serve people as well as they should. They create or reinforce systems of inequity, whether by intent or not. So I support all these groups and people who tackle our public institutions with a fervor to hold it accountable, to see change, to diversify that institution, and to help it evolve.
But privatization is a different thing. It’s saying “I give up on the public space and I will go private.” Private is money, capital, and the power to be able to own a previously public thing. That’s an enormous amount of privilege. And the overwhelming majority of those folks are not going to look like the people they serve. There’s no obligation to serve diverse communities, marginalized communities—they’re more expensive, so if you’re running on a profit margin, don’t expect to profit off serving low-income youth, and immigrants, and helping them learn English, or helping special needs students get to a point of full capacity.
“If you’re running on a profit margin, don’t expect to profit off serving low-income youth”
When we closed down 24 public schools in Philadelphia, we probably saw the largest transfer of public land into private hands that we had seen in the city of Philadelphia. It’s a really profound thing for government to say to those that they are charged to serve, especially when they are the most vulnerable—when those communities don’t have a lot of public institutions—to say “Sorry, I simply give up. I’m passing the buck to someone else.” It’s absolutely unacceptable and we should fight against it with every bit of our body because those private institutions take our dollars, they take our children, they purport that they are smarter, more powerful, wealthier, are more efficient to do the job better. And overwhelmingly what we find is that communities become more stratified, more marginalized, less likely to have voice and exercise their voice within those privatized structures.
When public institutions are starved into dysfunction and private capital moves in, that is not helping the situation. It’s exploiting and profiting off public distress. And it overwhelmingly harms the people that are already deeply impacted.
RF: What other safeguards do we have to put into place to protect these targeted communities and ensure that any gains aren’t clawed back?
HG: Our communities are under assault daily. I’d love to say “look at all the great stuff we’re doing.” But the reality is it pales in comparison based on the kinds of assaults that communities endure, and they are really deeply traumatic. They break apart people’s ability to conceive of ways to fight back, or to think about other groups other than yourself, because you’re struggling at the moment with housing, you’re struggling at the moment because you’re terrified that your child may not come home because they’re black. You’re terrified of police monitoring the streets, terrified of a criminal conviction coming up time and time again every time you seek a job.
RF: Or immigrant parents with citizen children afraid to access the resources and programs that they need because they’re afraid that ICE might be there to swoop them up.
HG: Today there was an incredible story about how Philadelphia’s ICE office outranks every single office nationwide in terms of sweeping up people with absolutely no criminal history. In 2013, 33 percent of people swept up by ICE had no criminal record history, and now 70 percent do. And people are seeking political gain by scapegoating immigrants, by trying to pacify people and say “I’m going to send people to jail.” This dictator-like and fascist mentality around incarceration, oppression, repression of mostly black, brown, and immigrant people is really terrifying.
The thing that we have to build out right now is a way to connect these struggles together. If you care about mass incarceration, then take a look at how immigrant communities are being funneled into the for-profit private prison industry that allows rampant physical abuses. Similarly, immigrant communities who are terrified for themselves, scared of the police, scared of judges and the courts, should care about the criminal justice reform movement that has been working on this for a very long time. You can’t divorce these two movements from one another.
RF: You’ve said in the past that the backbone of the progressive movement lies in local organizing. So what is it that national advocacy organizations, think tanks, funders should do to better support the local activism, or the campaigns for justice on the ground?
HG: One, they have to recognize the importance of diversifying their own boards and staff to make sure that there are people of color, women in particular, who are listening to groups, and evaluating not just based on a numbers game—like number of people served, bang for your buck, whatever metrics people use—but also take a look at just the quality of the outcome. What is really moving things? Think tanks and policymakers need to be more cognizant of on-the-ground movement, but that doesn’t happen by sitting in Washington, D.C., or in New York City in an executive suite and tower. It really happens by being connected with people; then they can understand how to evaluate this stuff. If you see movement, go into it.
RF: Thank you Councilmember Gym, it has been such an honor having this conversation with you.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.