HomeBad Ass AsiansPhiladelphia Councilmember Advocates for Vulnerable Communities during COVID-19 Pandemic

Philadelphia Councilmember Advocates for Vulnerable Communities during COVID-19 Pandemic

by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor

They call her Philly’s own AOC. Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym has been working around the clock to protect Philadelphia’s most vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

AsAmNews spoke to Gym about her career in politics and the work she is doing to help the city of Philadelphia during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Gym, who is also a mother of three, says she came into politics “late in life.” She moved to Philadelphia almost 30 year ago and started her teaching career at Lowell Elementary School in Olney. She spent many years working as a community organizer in Philadelphia’s education community, advocating for a quality public school for every child. Politics felt like a natural next step.

In 2015, she won a city-wide city council election and was seated in 2016. Gym was the first Asian American woman to be elected to Philadelphia’s city council. 

“There’s no question that you encounter a lot of challenges,” Gym said. “Especially when you’re an Asian American elected in a city where Asian Americans are a relatively small percentage. So there are a number of biases and stereotypes that exist.”

Gym is one of seven women who sit on the 17-person council. She says that throughout her career she has had to deal with sexism and misogyny that is still deeply embedded in electoral politics.

“As a community organizer I had created a world in which matriarchy and women’s leadership was natural and welcomed and it took a lot,” Gym said. “It still is a lot for me to reckon with the fact that patriarchy when it comes to electoral power has wide ranging, pernicious, and kind of underlying impacts on women in politics in particular, women of color especially.”

Philadelphia has been one of the hardest hit American cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Gym, Philadelphia is second behind New York City in per capita COVID-19 deaths out of the ten largest cities in America. It has seen 23,281 cases and 1,394 deaths, WHYY reports. 

Gym said the numbers aren’t surprising. Philadelphia is the fourth poorest city in America with 1 in 4 residents living below the poverty line.

During the onset of the pandemic in Philadelphia, Gym and her staff zeroed in on a number of core priorities. One of their main concerns was housing security. They were “early out the gate” in March with a call for a moratorium on all evictions, mortgage, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs that was widely embraced throughout Philadelphia. The policies later became a state executive order.

Gym also advocated for policies that would protect immigrant workers. Many of Philadelphia’s immigrant communities work in jobs that were deemed essential, like food service production (think meatpacking plants). Those workers often have low wages, poor benefits and inadequate labor protections. Many of the companies they work for ignore or flout public health safety protocols. Gym wanted to move on policies that would create an essential worker’s bill of rights. Just recently, they introduced a bill that would protect workers from employer retaliation if they raised concerns about health safety protocols.

The councilwoman and her staff are also working to protect emergency housing. They recently introduced a package of bills designed to keep renter’s housing stable and to get our landlords paid without exacerbating evictions. They’re also looking to provide aid to those who have been left out of federal relief programs. 

“If there’s one thing you can say about a crisis, is it crystallizes your priorities,” Gym said. 

As Pennsylvania slowly begins to reopen, Gym said it is important that Philadelphia work with its surrounding counties to develop a more individualized reopening plan.

“It’s very serious for us,” Gym said. “If we don’t take reopening seriously because the damage is on poor communities, on African American communities, and it’s on essential workers.”

Gym is adamant about improving labor rights protections. She says when Philadelphia reopens decisions about health and safety protocols cannot just be left up to employers. The city needs to ensure that everyone is holding up their end of public health mandates. 

As a mother and former education grassroots organizer, Gym is especially concerned about the pandemic’s impact on public education. She said that while online learning “has its perks,” it is important that officials take a hard look at what learning will look like for the next year to year and a half before a vaccine is developed. 

“Overall [online schools] is a terrible system of education especially for younger kids or students with needs,” Gym said. “I think it underscores even more the value of in school learning with children around you.”

She added that she hopes Asian Americans do not get “overly enamored with the idea that we don’t need public schools right now.” We need them now “more than ever.”

Gym and her staff have also been hyper conscious of the increased discrimination against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic. The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations has been hearing discrimination cases. Gym has been meeting with community members and leaders to help explain how Asian Americans can file a report if they are harassed or attacked. 

Gym said that non-Asian Americans need to be aware that the idea we’re getting the virus from China is “biased and wrong.”

“It actually makes us make poor decisions,” Gym said. “We’re not getting the virus from China, we’re getting it from one another, and we need to be looking out for our fellow neighbors.”

Gym added that in taking care of others, like the most vulnerable, we are also taking care of ourselves.

“It behooves nobody to be denied health care or medical benefits or food support services or access to food stamps and other types of safety net provisions right now because if they get sick then we all can get sick,” Gym said.

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