Helen Gym’s Closing Keynote on Community Day of Learning

Councilwoman Helen Gym gave the closing speech for Community Day of Learning 2016. Gym is the daughter of immigrant parents raised in Ohio. She attended the University of Pennsylvania for both her undergraduate and graduate studies, was the director of Asian Americans United, and helped found Philadelphia Parents for Public Education in 2006. She is an advocate for community organizing and has helped prevent the siting of a baseball stadium and casino in Chinatown.

Gym started her keynote by addressing the problems in Philadelphia’s public education system. In the context of poverty and education statistics, Philly is the poorest and worst educated. She cited the lack of instruction of essential subjects like biology and physics, the shortage of schools nurses, and a curriculum stripped of arts and music.

Our communities learn to push back.

Education reform is about conscious choices we make. We must come to consciousness very quickly to learn what organizing is and how movements happen. Because we experience such massive dismantling of our schools, we build coalitions to push back. This includes institution building, spreading newspapers and information, etc. Gym acknowledged that education reform is interconnected with other issues like incarceration and racism.

Education is just one pillar of a world agenda for justice.

Collective action comes out of individual movements based on trust.

The keynote concluded with ideas on how we could get involved as  students. Gym suggested we start with organizing within our school, which is maybe the most meaningful because…

It’s here, it’s local, and it’s real.

The local level in our communities is within our grasps to change. Philadelphia is only a 20 minutes train ride from us. We should lay siege to that empire that favors private interest and work within the framework of courage, compassion, dignity, and hope. Gym reminded us to look around to make sure the community is representative and diverse.


To me, Gym’s keynote was more like a motivation speech, which is still very important. These conversations have to start somewhere, and we must lay down the groundwork of good morals and shared understandings. As for the technical skills and physical actions students of Bryn Mawr learn to offer to the world, I thought Gym’s keynote was lacking on guidance for this. It is a fact (and one that we pride ourselves in) that most Bryn Mawr students go onto graduate schools and Ph.Ds after their undergrad. I think the next challenge for us in 10+ years is balancing our involvement in our careers with our communities and families. What is bigger than community reform? Institutional reform. Fighting and fixing the system. The bigger picture. How do we work for a more inclusive prosperity in the USA? I think Economist Alice Rivlin ’52 has some great answers. Does Gym’s speech resonate more with our community than that of Rivlin’s because she is a woman of color from Philadelphia? I think we should take both into consideration because ultimately they are working toward the same goal.