Progressive Politics and the AAPI Movement

Guest Post by Helen Gym

Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym marches for LGBT Pride at the Democratic National Convention.

The biggest political event of the year -- the Democratic National Convention -- just wrapped up in my home city of Philadelphia, and I wanted to offer some reflections on what a moment we're in as a nation and as an Asian American movement.

Last year I ran for citywide office in Philadelphia -- a major leap for someone who not only felt far more at home in grassroots mobilizing but as someone who often felt politics had limited impact when communities were so deeply marginalized and often under siege. We were always too busy mobilizing, developing and getting out our messages, and clarifying policy priorities.

But after two decades of doing this work, our communities were ready for change and poised to lead the charge. Organizations had matured, no longer newcomers to the political scene. Asian Americans United, my political home, had just marked 30 years of organizing in low-income and new immigrant communities. New leadership revitalized our networks; and community-led independent media meant we could tell our stories faster, more creatively and just as loudly as in the mainstream.

Most importantly, the issues that drove us -- mass incarceration and deportation, the dismantling of our public schools, gentrification, rising poverty, and anti-immigrant and racial injustices -- pulled us together with diverse communities in building broad-based justice coalitions which were moving faster than our politics -- putting us on the front lines of solutions, and not just of protests.

This is the movement that I came out of, and it's a movement that swept me into office as Philadelphia's first Asian American Democrat and first Asian American woman on City Council.

But it's also an example of our times as our communities -- and our politics -- continue to evolve.

Helen Gyms talks about AAPI and Chinatown organizing in Philadelphia on "Democracy Now!"

There is no question we are in an ascendant progressive moment in American politics.

On stage at the Democratic convention last week, we saw an inspiring array of individuals who spoke to issues that had pushed their way into the center of American politics. From Moral Mondays founder Rev. William Barber to 10-year-old Karla Ortiz, daughter of undocumented parents; from the Mothers of the Movement to NARAL's Ilyse Hogue to trans activist Sarah McBride.

I was incredibly moved watching Rep. Keith Ellison, a star of the progressive movement and our nation's first Muslim Congressman, take center stage to introduce Sen. Bernie Sanders, a socialist, who endorsed Hillary Clinton, the first female nominee for president in our 240-year history.

In Philadelphia's streets, we also saw democracy in the making through marches for immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter, for climate justice and an end to fossil fuel domination, and to uphold and protect civil rights for LGBTQ communities.

The Democratic Party platform is the most progressive in history. It establishes a $15 an hour minimum wage, as well as commitments to debt-free college, paid leave, expanded Social Security, and controls on big banks and on ending unfettered corporate influence in politics.

This is not a politics for those who want a safe path to power. This is a politics for the people.

So where will Asian Americans be in this moment?

Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten rally with public school teachers in Philadelphia for Helen Gym's 2015 election.

For me it means the grassroots energy sweeping through this nation, energizing our youth and making politics meaningful -- rather than just a spectacle -- is moving at the local level.

It challenges all of us to remain deeply rooted in our community's struggles. It means that we as AAPIs have to constantly push back against the Model Minority stereotypes deployed at will to divide communities of color. It means we cannot be the face of affirmative action, of magnet school admissions, hyper-privileged Tiger Moms, and test score tyranny that runs at deep odds with the experiences of our young people in struggling public schools. It means we're fighting for school funding and advancing policies about community colleges and language access and ending the school to prison pipeline because the majority of our AAPI children attend public schools and institutions.

It means we're not the face of those telling newer immigrant and refugee communities to get in the back of the line when it comes to discussion of immigration. It means we are no longer willing to accept mass incarceration as well as deportation as a way of life in disenfranchised communities.

It means we fight for the right to organized unions, especially for home health care workers, those in the hotel and hospitality industry, and food service industry where so many newer immigrants are employed. We want a higher minimum wage, workers' rights, and paid leave -- and we have an obligation and opportunity to make sure our voices are part of that struggle.

It means we're talking about race and intersectionality -- not some of the time, but all of the time. We have to be leaders in denouncing anti-Muslim hate and misogyny, and leaders in the fight for Black Lives Matter, for criminal justice reform, racial and economic justice, and with and for our LGBTQ and trans communities. It means we put forward nuanced analysis that brings to light the complexities of intersecting marginalization.

Helen talks about education justice in a speech to the American Federation of Teachers

While state legislatures and Washington, D.C. often seems stuck in gridlock, local politics is taking off like never before.

As someone new to political office, I find inspiration in leadership like St. Paul Councilmember Dai Thao and San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar. That's why I decided to join and help lead a national organization called Local Progress, which is wholly invested in bringing progressive policies to the municipal level.

We have always believed that change does not just come from the top down. Municipal politics is where local knowledge of local struggles allow us to fight for the kinds of changes that send ripples and even shock waves through the status quo. Indeed, it is precisely these local movements that have pushed forward the more progressive national agenda we saw being presented in Philadelphia.

We don't just talk about it. We do the hard work to make it happen. On my first day in office, I was proud to stand by our mayor as he signed an Executive Order establishing Philadelphia as a protected Sanctuary City; and on my last day of session, we passed a historic soda tax that will invest millions of dollars into renovating and re-imagining our public schools, libraries, parks and recreation centers. In between we tackled everything from addressing water safety to public school investments to challenging deportation and public recognition and apology for historical acts of racism. And that's just in our first six months.

AAPI movements and experiences put us squarely within a rising progressive political movement that is revitalizing our communities and energizing our nation. We can't afford the polite and measured politics of the past.

As Asian Americans, we have fought for visibility and voice throughout our history. This is not a time to sit on the sidelines. Let's keep organizing, let's keep mobilizing and let's get out there and be heard.

Helen Gym is a City Councilmember in Philadelphia and Vice-Chair-elect of the national organization Local Progress. You can reach her at info@helengym.com. Read more about Helen and Local Progress here.

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