angry reader of the week: helen gym

It's time, once again, to meet another Angry Reader of the Week, spotlighting you, the very special readers of this website. Over the years, I've been able to connect with a lot of cool folks, and this is a way of showing some appreciation and attention to the people who help make this blog what it is. This week's Angry Reader is community organizer Helen Gym.

Who are you?
Helen Gym, board member of Asian Americans United; founder of Parents United for Public Education, which organizes public school parents around school budgets; board member/blogger at the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a citywide education newspaper; and a proud member of an incredible community of organizer activists keeping a kick-ass justice movement alive here in Philly.

What are you?
Lucky, grateful, humbled and inspired. I'm a 2nd generation Korean American; mother of three; wife of the best man around; family historian; teacher; martial arts student; aspiring gardener.

Where are you?
In the fray. No seriously, I'm in Philly Chinatown at Asian Americans United in the charter school we built five years ago which sits on the outer footprint of what was once proposed as a baseball stadium - a proposal Chinatown and AAU defeated a decade ago - and blocks away from what would have been a proposed slots parlor - which AAU helped defeat this past summer. This school sums up the vision we have at AAU: a vision of creating healthy communities and building the kind of spaces where people want to lay down roots and invest in their neighborhoods. Instead of a stadium or a gambling hall, we've got families walking to school, and children playing, learning and singing in this building. It's a different notion of development that measures community progress by something other than just skyrocketing real estate prices.

Where are you from?
I was born in Seattle, but I'm a Midwestern gal at heart, raised in Columbus, Ohio. I think I got my love and respect for public spaces living in Columbus, going to an amazing public school, having access to a spectacular public library system, taking classes at the pool and rec center, biking freely through public parks. As the daughter of immigrants, these public spaces instilled in me the valuable role that communities/institutions/governments play in helping equalize opportunities for all people regardless of their background.

I am also from a political home at Asian Americans United, a rare space which has quietly, and sometimes not so quietly, nurtured and mentored countless Asian activists in Philadelphia.

What do you do?
A lot of my work is focused around quality public school education and expanding the critical role that schools play as anchor institutions to uplift our communities. Through different roles, I've tackled issues like improving funding for schools, challenging privatization and excessive contracting, and creating school budgets that focus on what every child needs - quality teachers, engaging academic programs, librarians, and a safe and well-equipped school building. It's kind of crazy that in this day asking for music in a child's life is a radical notion. Or that it's revolutionary to demand a qualified teacher or decent bathroom facilities or healthy fresh food in lunchrooms. If these things are radical, then all of us need to get a lot more militant.

At Asian Americans United, our work is pretty diverse, focusing on issues impacting recent immigrant communities. We have a strong commitment to youth leadership. We've been lucky to work with students from South Philadelphia High School who boycotted their school for eight days last month in the wake of anti-Asian violence there. We also fight for healthy communities, which includes our charter school, building gardens and hosting Chinatown's largest community festival during the Harvest Moon. It also means we have to fight off a lot of stuff, most recently a proposed slots parlor and the issue of predatory gambling which harms so many Asian immigrant families.

What are you all about?
Sustaining leadership. As I get older I realize what a challenge it is to keep movements going over the long haul and the importance of building new leadership for the future.

I try to keep in mind what activist Ellen Somekawa says about what it means to fight for justice. It's not just that you seek an end to a struggle but find joy and hope in the struggle itself. I am amazed at the leveraged power of institutions to silence communities - like when we faced off against the multi-billion dollar gambling industry. It's often defeating and disempowering. Even in those lowest moments, I am inspired and comforted and strengthened by the community we build through struggle. I am also constantly impressed and challenged by the caliber of so many of our young people, who have fought for and won many things on behalf of their communities.

Radicalizing love in Asian America. All of the struggles we engage in is ultimately about love isn't it? Love for our children, love for our communities, love for our fellow neighbors. And why not create a love that is radical and fearless and urgent. But if we are waiting for someone to stand up, for people with power and titles to drop their vanities and squabbles, for someone else to do what we know to be right, then we will wait forever. We have to be out to change the world for our children. We're not waiting for anyone but ourselves, we're not going to find any will but our own, and when we step outside we will find that we are embraced by so many of our fellow citizens welcoming us to the struggle.

What makes you angry?
The idea that leadership = entitlement. Lack of respect for community organizing. Cruelty. Those who wait for change to come from the top.

I've been thinking a lot about these words by Howard Zinn, which make me "angry" in the inspired way Phil has defined it:

"If we remember those times and places - and there are so many - where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. . . To live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."

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