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‘We have a city to build’: Helen Gym wants to reimagine Philadelphia

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Helen Gym is determined to tell her story. Despite her 18 campaign backers, a seasoned campaign leadership and a relentless supporter base that has made her a political retreat, Gymnasium is trying to strike a balance between getting her message across and setting the record straight amid strong criticism. .

She is one of the most high-profile candidates in the race to become the next mayor of Philadelphia in what can only be described as a critical transition of power in 2024 in an area where she has experience, quality and ambition, and not the first it’s a rodeo.

Gymnasium also fought on the city council in what appears, from the outside, to be a continuation of the work he has done supporting Philadelphia schools for the past 20 years.

“I have done many important campaigns where the stakes were high and there was a lot of uncertainty,” said Gym, 54, in an interview with AL DÍA News.

In fact, he has spent much of his life in the trenches of advocacy and organizing, whether in the community or on the political scene, “as someone who was not afraid to stand up to some of the tough politics that was holding us back. .”

“I think a lot of people thought that this kind of activist, teacher, you know, organizer, might not be very suited to membership politics,” Gym said.

“But it turns out that the kinds of skills we learn were in communities where a lot of elected officials or people with a lot of power and some sort of title fled and dispersed. The people who took their place were parents or residents,” he continued. .

before the spotlight

More than twenty years ago, he opposed a proposal by former mayor John Street to build a ballpark in Chinatown along with Asian Americans United, a community group, which overcame strong pressure from the city government at the time.

considered a “fist” for the school district, Gymnasium is no stranger to larger battles, unequivocally calling the major school cuts “an abuse of human rights suffered by the children of our own city.” with Parents United for Public Educationa parent-run education advocacy group, of which he is a founding member.

In 2012, when the city felt the brunt of further cuts in school funding and the number of school closings, Gym’s views on the cuts appeared in the Washington Post, where he spoke with Dr. Thomas Knudsen, Recovery Leader at that time. City, which targeted 40 schools.

“I think our communities are always there to pick up the pieces after cavalier administrations. And I think our public schools are worth fighting for,” Gymnasium was quoted as saying by the Post.

Not much has changed in the Gymnasium or the area.

“In 2016, I ran for a very specific reason. And that was mainly because the city had just closed 30 public schools… And I felt like this city wasn’t really going to be able to get up if she left behind the core functions of government.”

And while he has taken a number of one-on-one battles since his city council tenure began in 2016, he considers them far from scrappy.

“Actually, I think that a simple project, at a time of great disinvestment, signaled the beginning of a massive investment campaign,” he explains to AL DÍA.

The ongoing fight for investment schools is complicated and ugly

Because the district cannot raise its own revenue, it is completely dependent on the city’s portfolio, which requires a creative approach to accommodate payroll and infrastructure improvements such as municipal bonds, Harrisburg cash, and some changes from the federal government .

But a scheduling disagreement between when the city and state were able to distribute the funds and when the school board actually needs the reserves created a $485 million deficit for the district in 2027.

In terms of funding, these disagreements took the form of lawsuits.

There are many ideas about how the area could stand on its own, but nothing is set in stone.

“I don’t see it as a debt,” Gym said, “because if you see it as a debt, if you see it as a charge, you’ll never invest.”

An “investment-based approach,” Gymnasium explained, means welcoming the superintendent to be “a big part of the mayor’s cabinet and vice versa, because I want the city and the school systems to be united and accountable to each other.” of the other”.

He also expects that the board will be involved, committed leaders, “who have a huge commitment on the ground, who are active in the communities, who are going to be visible and present.”

“I think I’m the only candidate who really understands how to make that real investment and turn it into a significant amount of private, state, federal and local support for our youth and to grow our city.”

Among the other plans, according to Gymnasium’s platform on education, is to create a database of the existing problems at the facility and convene interested parties, including organized labor groups, to come up with a ten-year plan for the modernize schools.

After a state Supreme Court decision that declared the current funding system unconstitutional, “I hope we’re going to fight like crazy to get a lot more money coming in and that’s a unifying factor,” Gym said.

Public safety diversion

Gymnasium does not yet have the full agenda for public safety, but he made it clear on AL DÍA Talks that it is a priority for the campaign.

However, during the campaign he advocated a specific approach to the city’s hardest-hit blocks and reducing 911 response times. From day one, Gymnasium has planned to convene department heads from different areas of government to bring whole government deployment. and holding weekly cabinet meetings.

Other efforts to prevent violence could be seen from the fourth floor of City Hall, where, in 2021, then-Councilman Gymnasium proposed Mobile Crisis Response Units for emergencies that did not require police intervention, promoted at the Treatment, Not Trauma Coalition.

This followed a shooting that killed Walter Wallace Jr, a 27-year-old black man with a history of mental illness.

Although the Council, largely through Gym, managed to secure $7.2 million in funding to deploy mobile mental health units, the program did not become widespread after its launch, with two units handling responses in the entire city .

“Philadelphia is always in a pilot phase, we experiment, we struggle with small amounts of dollars here, and they are there. Some of them are promising and expressive, but we do not take advantage of them, so they remain dysfunctional,” Gym said. .

When asked if she thinks the city should defund the police, “I’m not here to dismantle the departments that I run myself.”

“I’m here to make (dysfunctional agencies) more responsive and accountable to communities to make them more functional and competent than they’ve ever been.”

“Instead of seeing them directly through the eyes of a prosecutor. I’m looking at them through the eyes of our neighbors because they live next door,” Gymnasium continued.

This content is part of Every Voice, Every Vote, a collaborative project managed by the Lenfest Journalism Institute. The project is supported by the William Penn Foundation and additional funding from the Lenfest Institute, Peter and Judy Leone, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Harriet and Larry Weiss, and the Wyncote Foundation, among others. To learn more about the project and see the full list of partners, visit www.everyvoice-everyvote.org. Editorial content is created independently of project donors.

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