Helen Gym is being honored as a Cesar E. Chavez Champion of Change.
I was raised in Columbus, Ohio, the daughter of immigrants. Like most immigrant families, my parents did not have that much. As a child, my life revolved around the public institutions in my neighborhood—the parks, the libraries, the local recreation center, and of course my public school. These public spaces opened up the world around me to new opportunities, a diversity of people and ideas, and a chance to really engage and participate.
My parents and I relied on these public resources to give me the kind of education that our family couldn’t provide on its own. These public spaces were great equalizers, places where people from all backgrounds came together and understood—in a personal way—what it means when a society provides opportunities to its citizens.
I think a lot about the fragility of our public spaces today.
There is no question that our collective spaces are becoming increasingly diminished. In Philadelphia, our drastically underfunded public school system—where my three children attend—is in virtual freefall from spiraling political and financial disinvestment. Our school district has closed dozens of public schools and stripped essential services from each and every school community.
Meanwhile, we see hyper individualized notions of choice replacing what was once a fundamental, collective responsibility to provide an equitable and quality public education to all our children. To me, public education and the responsible and loving care of our children is the central issue of Philadelphia’s future. In a city where 39 percent of children live in poverty, it is essential that we institutionalize quality public schools in every neighborhood for every child.
That is why so much of my work is rooted in rebuilding our sense of public good and shared collective responsibility. At Asian Americans United, a 28-year-old community organization in Philadelphia Chinatown, we have created vibrant investment in public spaces through the establishment of a Chinatown arts festival that takes over the streets of a hard fought-for neighborhood; we have founded a school celebrating folk arts and serving many immigrant families that lies on the footprint of a historic struggle over community vision. And we’ve worked with young people to create a new generation of leaders who will care for our communities and preserve the public trust.
I co-founded Parents United for Public Education with fellow, like-minded parents to address poverty, inequity and disinvestment in long-neglected school communities. We are building conscious anti-racist leadership so that the hurts inflicted on our communities do not perpetuate racial divisions. We need strong parent voices to challenge perceptions of disengaged parents or “broken” families and school communities. Our parents have testified on budgets and tax policy, we’ve challenged abusive disciplinary practices, and called for collaborative partnerships with teachers and parents. In a city segregated by class and race, we’re working to build multiracial coalitions of parents to improve school practices, fight for new funding, and build public support for nurturing, stable rich learning environments for our children.
I’ve learned that our public spaces, our communities and our schools are not just places that exist in stasis. We have to learn to fight to preserve these spaces, to uplift them and to pass down the lessons of preservation and community to our children and our fellow neighbors. I see this work as a constant process of engagement, of seeking knowledge and solutions that not only alter unjust situations but transform our relationships with one another and open up possibilities for a new future.
Helen Gym is a community and educational leader in Philadelphia, where she serves on the board of Asian Americans United. She is co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, a citywide group of parents working for equity and justice in Philadelphia’s public schools.