Once again, a record number of Asian Americans and a growing number of Pacific Islanders are running for public office at the local, state, and national level.
Every week, Reappropriate will profile progressive AAPI candidates for higher office, as well as officials serving in public office. Check back at Reappropriate throughout 2020 to learn more about these candidates and find out how you can get more involved in their campaigns.
What is your full name?
Helen Hae-Liun Gym
What office are you seeking and/or what office do you currently hold?
I was seated in 2016 as an at-large member of Philadelphia’s City Council and the first Asian American woman on Council. I was re-elected to my position in 2019 with the largest margin of victory in three decades.
When is the election date and/or when is the end of your term?
I serve a four year term which concludes Dec. 31, 2023.
What is your party registration (if any)?
Tell me a little bit about your background in general, as well as your relationship to your identity as an Asian American and/or Pacific Islander?
I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the oldest daughter of Korean immigrants. Like so many, I struggled for years to find my voice in a world that often defined race along a Black-White binary. That changed when I decided to volunteer at a tiny Chinatown non-profit called Asian Americans United. A friend of mine said I had to get to know the women there who could “change the world.”
At Asian Americans United, I found a true political home. The people around AAU had participated in the civil rights struggle as SNCC workers, mobilized against apartheid and nuclear power, fought for LGBTQ rights and shared a deep understanding of America’s political history as Asian American movement activists whom I had never encountered in any formal schooling. I met ancestral icons like Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs and Philadelphia AIDS activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya.
I spent the next two decades with Asian Americans United, building gardens, establishing folk art festivals, running youth leadership programs and taking on citywide campaigns for justice. I cut my teeth fighting mayors and developers who would sacrifice a Chinatown neighborhood for publicly funded boondoggles like a sports stadium and casino. I fought for quality public schools and organized boycotts with recent immigrant youth fighting to end racial harassment and bias in their schools.
I learned early on how white supremacy and patriarchy are pillars of an unjust and unequal order. They perpetuate the gendered and racialized inequities that make Philadelphia the nation’s poorest large city. I see these systems at work in the criminal underfunding of our public schools, in the refusal to raise the minimum wage, in the quality of our housing, in the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people and in the for-profit detention and deportation of our immigrant brothers and sisters. I have never sought solutions in spaces where white supremacy and patriarchy are built. Instead I center the voices of communities working to tear down those systems. I remain eternally grateful to have learned that alongside brilliant AAPI organizers here in Philadelphia.
Now as an elected official, I honor my AAPI organizing roots by carrying forward a people’s campaign that centers and strengthens organizing in our city and works toward our collective liberation.
How did you become inspired to seek elected office?
A person like me comes into office when our community movements are strong. When I ran for office in 2015, I and many others had worked for decades to make public education the number one priority for the city. I had been part of a movement of educators, parents and youth who decried an inequitable and racist system of schooling and funding, fought a 17-year state takeover of our district and sought to build an alternative vision of education justice.
In 2015, our whole city leadership was turning over. I knew it was a defining moment that would change the direction of our city. We had also just experienced devastating losses, including the closure of more than two dozen schools and a governor who had slashed public school budgets statewide. The stakes were extremely high. I had hoped to find a candidate who could carry a vision for education that I and so many others had fought for. After waiting and waiting, I realized that the person who could do it best was me.
The movements and communities I had fought alongside propelled me into City Council in 2015 and made sure I was re-elected by historic margins last year. They are the forces that ended that state takeover, restored basic educational resources and helped me move some of the City’s biggest legislative and budgetary victories over my first term. To this day, I believe our greatest power lies in independent organizing spaces. I see my work today as part and parcel of the community movements I came out of. It’s a reminder that if you want more people taking office and making change, then invest in the movements that make their leadership possible.
What three issues do you think are most important to your constituents, and what step(s) do you plan to take to address them?
In 2020, several issues stand out: education justice, a local Green New Deal, the work of immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter and intersectional organizing.
I ran for and won office because of my work around public education and the fight for quality public schools for young people. This movement started in schoolyards, PTA meetings and backyard barbecues, but over time it became an unstoppable political force. We toppled a one-term governor; ended a 17-year state takeover of our school district; restored nurses, counselors, the arts and clean water to every public school; and now are ready to fight for major investments in school modernization. In 2020, education and schools are more than just a hot button political issue. Schools play a core role in the daily life of every family; they function as community institutions and neighborhood anchors. In Philadelphia, our schools are also on the front lines of a local Green New Deal to end environmental racism and toxic school environments in neighborhoods of color. COVID-19 has made activism around our schools bigger than ever. This is a potent political force that cannot be ignored as we head into November.
In 2020, immigration justice must also become a national mobilizing effort for our community, and AAPIs must be visible and vocal in seeking change not just in legislation but in ending this nation’s racist and toxic anti-immigrant narrative. We have not seen meaningful immigration reform in almost a quarter century. I’m not talking about DACA or the DREAM Act. If Democrats win the White House, those two things should be a given. I am talking about material action on immigration – a road to citizenship for millions that prioritizes family reunification, an end to horrific practices like child separation and the “Remain in Mexico” program, ending indefinite detention and cruel deportation practices and a full dismantling of ICE. We will be told it’s unpopular and too hard. We must be relentless nonetheless. The politics around immigration rights now are monstrous and inhumane, and AAPIs with citizenship status and English language privilege, especially elected office holders, have a moral responsibility to be on the frontlines of ending the terrorization of our communities.
AAPIs must also confront anti-Blackness in our communities and form multiracial coalitions to tackle institutional racism. The forces of hate tearing our country apart are the same forces that threaten movements from within – anti-blackness, patriarchy, misogyny, anti-trans hate and homophobia. An AAPI movement that purports to work towards justice cannot be a movement separate from Black Lives Matter, ending mass incarceration, voting rights, seeking educational justice, housing equity or civil and human rights.
That means AAPIs must push back against the model minority stereotypes used to divide us against communities of color. We cannot be the face of anti-affirmative action, of magnet school admissions and hyper-privileged ‘tiger moms’ when we should be showing up for school funding, working towards desegregation, ending the school to prison pipeline and fighting for the right to organize unions to increase the minimum wage and ensure workers’ rights. It means we take on the fight to reform systems of mass incarceration as loudly as we take on ending systems of mass detention and deportation.
Our work is strengthened by working alongside Black liberation movements, and our only path through this world is to broadly unify. We have to show up; otherwise, we are not part of a true justice movement.
What advice would you have for other young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders currently considering a career in politics and/or public service?
Stay local. I am vice chair of an organization called Local Progress, and we’re all local elected officials. I am a big believer in municipal offices as much as I am in local organizing. If you’re angry about the state of your public schools, recognize that school boards have more power to hire teachers of color, enact anti-racist curricula and depolice schools than the Secretary of Education. If you’re fighting for criminal justice reform, we need progressive prosecutors, judges and defenders who can define and enact a new agenda. From City Council, I’ve fought for everything from water access and a Green New Deal to housing justice, labor and civil rights expansion and ending ICE contracts and protecting immigrants. The grassroots energy mobilizing our communities is coming from the ground up and moving at the local level. It is diverse, it is feminist, it is queer, it is progressive and it is changing the nation.
Where can readers go to learn more about you and your platform?
You can read a few profiles about me here in the Philadelphia Inquirer and at Philadelphia Magazine. I did an opening keynote at Netroots Nation in 2019 which talks about my work as well. And though this is from 2016, I wrote this piece about AAPIs and the progressive movement for Angry Asian Man that still feels pretty relevant today.
How can readers get involved? Are there any upcoming events you’d like for us to know about?
This fall is all about kicking Trump out of the White House, winning back our state legislatures and making sure AAPIs are visible. I encourage AAPIs to adopt a state – pick Pennsylvania! – and join with groups like API-PA, which is mobilizing in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs.
This interview was conducted by Hannah Han.
Correction: An earlier version of this post ran with an incorrect header image. We have replaced the image and we apologize for the error.
If you are a progressive Asian American or Pacific Islander running for or currently serving in elected office in 2020, and would like to be profiled in this series, please contact me for more information.