Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Editorial | Helen Gym

This inclusionary leader has tirelessly fought to improve city schools.

Mayor-elect Michael Nutter could've just taken a bow last week after the announcement that the city and schools would get an extra $2.71 million this year from the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

Instead, the man who wants citizens to stand up and help him to make the city better shared the limelight with people who are doing just that: Parents United for Public Education.

"The parents deserve a tremendous amount of credit," Nutter said. "They came upon this issue, focused on this issue, and drew some serious attention to it, and they are the true champions here."

Parents United has spent the last two years speaking out at School Reform Commission meetings, poring over budgets, pushing City Council to commit more resources to education, and insisting that the Parking Authority live up to its promise to help fund city schools.

While this is undeniably a team effort, the voice of one Parents United member stands out:

Helen Gym, The Inquirer's 2007 Citizen of the Year.

Here's a bit of that voice:

"It's crazy to think in this day and age that asking for music in a child's life is radical. That it is radical and revolutionary to demand a qualified teacher, or science labs and decent bathroom facilities, or healthy fresh food in lunchrooms. . . .

"If these things are radical, then all of us need to become militant to our core."

Gym was among dozens of worthy nominees submitted for Citizen of the Year, including developer Kenny Gamble, who helped organize the city's 10,000 Men antiviolence effort; slain Officer Chuck Cassidy and fellow members of the Philadelphia Police Department; and Amy J. Goldberg, Temple's chief trauma surgeon, who brings at-risk youth into the emergency room to look at the results of gun violence.

The award goes to Gym because Parents United's grassroots efforts reach across economic, political and racial divides, and because those efforts produce results. They prove that when people come together, there is no such thing as a lost cause.

Gym's own background of activism demonstrates this.

In 2000, Gym, the community group Asian Americans United, and a host of others defeated a strong push by Mayor Street - and this Editorial Board - to consider building a baseball stadium at 12th and Vine in Chinatown.

In 2005, Gym helped start the Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School on the footprint of what would have been a baseball stadium.

In 2006, Gym was part of the fight to secure political asylum for Jiang Zhen Xing, an illegal Chinese immigrant who miscarried twins during a deportation attempt.

This year, she and Parents United have two significant wins: the Parking Authority deal and last spring's increase in school funding by City Council.

And they'll keep pushing for accountability at all levels of the district, including the unions. Gym says they would like input in next year's contract negotiations, hoping to find incentives to bring the best teachers to struggling schools.

Of course, funding remains a priority. Gym called the Parking Authority money "a drop in the bucket compared with what our kids need and what they deserve." The group wholeheartedly supports a recent state study that said Philadelphia schools were underfunded by $1 billion annually.

"We're either going to invest in children now," Gym says, "or pay later in unemployment and poverty."

Gym says she'd rather not attend so many meetings or be forced to push lawmakers to do their jobs. She'd prefer to garden, spend time with her husband and three children, and practice kung fu. However, one reality has emerged from the activism of People United:

"If we are waiting for someone else to stand up and do what we know to be right, then we will wait forever."

So Gym and her fellow parents stand up for what they know is right, motivated not by the thrill of protest or the limelight Nutter graciously shared last week, but by something not so radical: love.

"Schools are where we institutionalize our love for our children," Gym says. "And why not invest in love and give our children all they deserve?"

Editorial | Citizen of the Year

This is the fourth annual Citizen of the Year award by The Inquirer Editorial Board.

In 2006, the award went to former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. for his work helping children of incarcerated parents. In 2005, the award went to Russell Diamond, Timothy Potts and Eugene Stilp for leading the pay-raise revolt in Harrisburg. In 2004, former New Jersey Gov.Tom Kean was honored for his leadership of the independent 9/11 Commission.

The award honors people whose work has upheld in a major way the ideals of citizenship: promoting justice, strengthening democracy or fostering community.

Honorees can come from any of the three states in the paper's market - Pennsylvania, New Jersey or Delaware. The Board solicits and considers nominees from business; science and medicine; education; government; arts and culture; civic activism; and sports and entertainment.