In a post-Trump America, just after an insurrection and an inauguration, young people have questions: Why bother with politics? When will my school reopen? Was there election fraud?
City Councilperson Helen Gym and City Commissioner Al Schmidt are answering some of them. In a virtual, traveling road show, the pair are meeting with some Philadelphia students in real time, talking democracy and life.
In recent stops in classes at Masterman and Kensington Health Sciences Academy, high school students were a little awed by the somewhat unlikely duo of the progressive Democratic lawmaker — a former public school teacher and community organizer — and the Republican elections official whose postelection profile was so high he had spurious election fraud claims personally leveled at him by President Donald Trump.
But mostly, the youth wanted the skinny.
What’s it like to be on City Council?
“It’s not too much different from high school,” Gym said. “There are definitely cliques and there are different personalities,” though everyone works hard and is committed.
What about those votes the former president said weren’t counted?
“There was not in this election, at all, any evidence of widespread voter fraud, period,” Schmidt told Masterman students Friday, noting that “before a single vote was cast, before a single vote was counted, there were efforts to undermine confidence in the results. We were under siege in the weeks leading up to Election Day.”
With COVID-19 keeping Philadelphia students physically out of school since last March, a return to buildings was on the minds of many, a reality Gym acknowledged.
“There are a lot of questions on the table …,” said Gym. “Is our city prepared and is the school district prepared to again not only deal with health disparities, but educational disparities?”
School reopening is important, Gym said, but “what we want is to be able to match the return to school with an investment in schools, not just to force people back at any costs.”
(The federal coronavirus relief package gives the Philadelphia School District some breathing room from financial woes that stem largely from rising fixed costs and the system’s inability to raise its own revenue. Philadelphia is set to receive over $500 million from the feds over the next two years, enough to stave off its looming deficit for a few years. The system is now projecting a $224 million gap in 2024.)
Why bother with politics? one Kensington Health Sciences Academy student asked.
“Whether you want to be or not, you’re already political,” said Gym. “You are a public school student whose schools are being left behind. That in and of itself is a political issue.”
Schmidt, who said he did not grow up dreaming of running for public office, urged students to move in that direction.
“I would encourage everyone to consider public service in their future, whether it’s in elected or other capacity,” said Schmidt. Even now, he said, students have a responsibility to spread truth and get involved.
“How do you solve the problems of poverty and illiteracy and language access and everything else,” Schmidt said. “That’s where I would encourage everyone to be engaged.”
For now: Register people to vote at your school, Gym said. Register people to vote on your block. Support people who will work for the issues you care about.
And though in many ways, we are “living in a very dangerous time,” Schmidt said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been more hopeful about our democracy and the future of our republic.”
More visits are planned in the coming days.