Win, Helen, Win!

Parent activist Helen Gym’s race for Philly City Council is a model of how to put schools and community voice at the heart of a campaign…

Parent activist Helen Gym

Parent activist Helen Gym

When I got word that parent activist Helen Gym wasn’t just running for an at-large seat on the Philadelphia City Council but was teaching the world a thing or two in the process, I knew I had to see this force of nature for myself. And so I was off, to Philly, to spend a day with Helen, knocking on doors, shaking hands, talking to complete strangers about school funding and how you can’t have strong neighborhoods without strong schools. Or rather Helen did those things. I just stood back and marveled, thinking again and again that every one of our cities needs a Helen—and that it might just be you, or me. Well, probably not me…

photo (2)Be prepared 
The first thing about running an effective local campaign is that you need to be really well prepared. Like 25 years well prepared. That’s how long ago Helen and a crew of parents and teachers got together to start the Philadelphia School Notebook, a major source of independent news about schools in the City of Brotherly Love. The Notebook may have started small—just a few pages xeroxed by volunteers—but today it’s a full-fledged news source and regularly breaks news, including charter school scandals, and has forced the Inquirer, Philly’s major daily, to do more than reprint press releases from wealthy school reform supporters.

Notch up a victory or two
Like how about helping to organize parents across Philadelphia and forcing what was then the largest for-profit manager of public schools to essentially beat a retreat from the city? I’m talking about Edison Schools, Inc., hired by the governor back in 2001 to make recommendations about how to improve the public schools. Edison’s advice: give us the schools! Helen and her merry band of parent activists did some serious educating, which is a big part of why Philadelphians are so skeptical of school privatization efforts today. And why voters say that education is twice as important as any other issue in this election.

photo (3)Put the ‘fun’ in school funding
Do you know what guys at vintage car shows love to talk about? If you answered *school funding,* I’m guessing you’re a vintage car buff and possibly shook Helen’s hand at the Rockin’ the Ridge car show, listenin’ with rapt attention as she talked about school fundin.’ The question of how to fund Philadelphia’s public schools, which, after years of rampant charter expansion, have been stripped of the most basic resources, is at the very heart of this campaign. You can read Helen’s *fair share* school funding plan here, but allow me to summarize. You see, it’s actually possible to ensure that Philly’s schools have nurses, counselors and even teachers, without putting the entire burden onto homeowners. Hey, look at you, nodding along—just like the guys at the car show!

Collect change to make change
Turns out I’m not the only one who was excited by Helen’s city council campaign. More than 1,000 donors ponied up small amounts to make Helen the second best funded candidate in the race. In case you’re keeping score at home, the top spot went to a millionaire developer who loaned his campaign six of his own figures.

Call out the money guys
Speaking of rich guys, Helen’s major opposition comes not from the fifteen other candidates running for an assortment of city council seats, but these gentlemen from the Susquehanna Investment Group, LLC. They’ve poured a total of $6 million into the election in an effort to at last realize their dream of making Philly a charter-y, voucher-y dreamscape. Well, here, I’ll let Helen break it down for you. *So you have these three hedge fund billionaires trying to destroy public education in a city where they’ll never live, hurting kids they’ll never know. And it’s easy for them and they’ve done it without remorse and without reflection.* Moving right along…

image1Make your case
It was now late afternoon and we’d been on the campaign trail since the crack of dawn—or at least that’s how it felt to me. We’d skipped right over naptime and now it was dangerously close to the cocktail hour, and no one seemed to be mentioning that either. Instead, we were gathered for an event in West Philly, organized by a family Helen met after their school was threatened with closure two years ago. The school stands still, and the crowd was standing too, all ears as Helen made the simple and forceful case that you can’t lift up a city and its people without lifting its public schools. Racial justice, economic justice, education justice are all of a piece, Helen explained. And then this line: *As a community you can only get what you’re organized to take.*

*As a community you can only get what you’re organized to take.*

Stand out in a crowd
OK, so I had obviously developed what we might call a candi-crush, but would the rest of the world feel the way about Helen the way I did? And how was she going to stand out in a field so crowded that her ballot position is #95? Well, it turns out than when you’ve been a visible force, advocating for schools, parents and students for years, complete strangers recognize you when you walk down the street. *Hey I know you—you’re that advocate for schools,* is how one guy put it. Another gentleman named Courtney told his peeps at a West Philly park that Helen was all right. *I’ll vouch for her,* he said. *She’s an advocate, a pitbull.*

photo (5)Wear the right shoes
Not sure what else there is to say about this one, save that I have deep admiration for anyone who can march around in heels, especially when they are of the pink and polka-dotted variety. As for me, I was not only not wearing heels, I was angling for Helen’s campaign volunteers to carry me around the city, that’s how tired I was…

Be the movement 
Having spent an entire day on the campaign trail with Helen, I’m pretty sure I can guess exactly what she’s thinking about now. You’re making it sound like this is all about me, but I’m only here because of a
real movement and years of grassroots organizing. And she has a point. Helen’s campaign reflects deep grassroots energy in the city, energy that, as she explains, isn’t reflected by the city’s politicians and their vision. *I think people should be paying attention to this race because you’re seeing culmination of a decade of organizing and advocacy that has built up around our schools.*
Make a few calls
By now you’re probably ready to move to Philly. Alas, it’s too late for that—the election is on May 19—but there is one little thing you can do to support Helen in her race for Philadelphia City Council. You can join a virtual phone bank (who knew???) and make some calls. You’ll find everything you need right here.
For more information about Helen’s campaign, go to


  1. Congratulations, Helen! I met you at the NPE conference in 2014 after following your work via Diane Ravitch’s blog. You’re an inspiration.

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