Crossroads News

Council Member Helen Gym Talks Local Politics

The Philadelphia City Council member discusses the power of grassroots activism.
Explaining a regulatory bill concerning local labor practices to Elementary School students may seem like a difficult task. But on April 23, visiting Philadelphia City Council Member Helen Gym framed the issue of unpredictable work schedules faced by low-wage service workers in a way that Crossroads’ youngest learners could understand. After asking what time school started and ended each day, she posited:

“What If I told you that tomorrow school would start late—but you would have to stay until 7 p.m.? And then you wouldn’t have school for two days, but the next day you had to stay until 9 p.m.?”

Students immediately understood the instability and uncertainty such irregular scheduling would bring to their families' lives. Gym then shared her recent success passing a Fair Workweek bill, an anti-poverty measure that assures Philadelphia workers advance notice of their schedules and compensation for last-minute changes.

Later that evening, Gym addressed parents and community members in a presentation hosted by the Crossroads School Equity & Justice Institute as part of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Equity & Justice Distinguished Lecture Series. In a speech titled “When They Go Low, We Go Local: How Municipal Politics Power Grassroots Justice Movements,” she used the Fair Workweek bill as an example of local legislation succeeding where national action stagnates. “I’m not going to wait for D.C. to do what it should for America,” she stated.

The first Asian-American woman to serve in Philadelphia’s City Council, Gym got her start as a teacher and community organizer, working alongside Crossroads Elementary School Director (and Philly native) Debbie Wei. While Gym acknowledged growing skepticism about the government’s ability to solve problems like socio-economic inequality and xenophobia, she is proud of municipal legislation’s ability to effect meaningful change.

“Local politics hold the best promise for repairing cynicism and mistrust in institutions,” she said. “Democracy begins at home.”