Announcer: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry from WNYC and PRX in collaboration with WGBH Radio in Boston.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Throughout March, to celebrate Women's History Month, The Takeaway is partnering with the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, to bring you the stories of women leading locally. This time, we're headed to Philly.
Helen Gym: My name is Helen Gym, City Councilmember At-Large.
Kendra Brooks: My name is Kendra Brooks, City Councilmember At-Large for the City of Philadelphia.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Philly may be the city of brotherly love, but these two sisters are doing all the things with the city they love. Councilmembers Gym and Brooks care about their constituents. They champion fairness and equity and they're most definitely all about the community. I asked Councilmember Brooks how she began her path to politics.
Kendra Brooks: I've always been very active in my community and my children's school was slated to become a charter. We organized the parents in my neighborhood and former alumni of the school towards a fight to make sure our school maintained a public school status. We won. It was a fight that I never thought I could win. It was a victory for my community. It was bigger than me. Then it took the blinders off that when we organize and we fight, we can win collectively. That just entered me into this whole world of community organizing around issues.
Whether it was neighbors against the gas plant, it was also in my neighborhood, gun violence issues that were happening in our neighborhood. Just overall. That's actually my path into politics. I never saw myself becoming a politician, I just saw myself fighting and helping my neighbors fight for the communities and the city that we deserve.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Clearly, Councilmember Brooks, that pathway of finding yourself moving towards elected office by first starting around community advocacy, and especially advocacy around kids, around health, that is, in certain ways 101 for drawing women into elected leadership.
Kendra Brooks: Absolutely. One of the things I used to say, and I try not to say anymore, I was just a mom. There's no such thing as just a mom. I am a mom, I am a woman, and I am a fighter. All of those things, I want women to stop seeing it with just something because that just thing is the power, that's like our superpower. Had I not been just a mom, I thought I was, my school would not be in the hands of the City of Philadelphia.
My nieces and nephews still attend that school in our community. So many other fights started because I was a community member, and I love my neighborhood.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Councilmember Gym, similarly, tell me a bit about your pathway into elected office.
Helen Gym: Like my colleague, Councilmember Brooks, my path into politics cut through Philadelphia's organizing communities. I had been a long-time activist in Philadelphia's immigrant and public education communities to communities that we're often marginalized, if not oppressed by existing politics. We had to organize nonetheless because the consequences were great. Families could be deported. Families could be torn apart. Children could lose access to a school, they could drop out.
I learned early on at the feet of many different activists here across the City of Philadelphia, how important it was to knit together a real movement that came out of communities. Unfortunately, for us, a lot of the reasons why we were so strong and expansive was because so many terrible things were happening to us. The state took over the Philadelphia public schools, for example. Took out a billion dollars from public education, fired thousands of staff members, including almost every single nursing counselor out of a public school.
Folks like us, Councilmember Brooks, myself, and thousands of others had no choice. It turned out that the work that we were doing was more than just as Councilmember Brooks shared, fighting for our schools, but we were fighting for our city. We were fighting for a vision that was far greater than a single moment in time. A city that left its schoolchildren and its kids behind would leave its communities and its people behind. I think that that urgency propelled me in but the thing that holds me here is the continuing expansive strength of community organizing that we've seen fuel movements all across the country.
Whether it's labor rights, civil rights, voting rights. Those movements are still alive and folks like us, Councilmember Brooks, Kendra, and I, only come in when those movements are strong.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, and both of you are first. Probably first in many ways, but let me focus in a little bit on the ways in which you are first. I'll come back to you, just straight back to you, Councilmember Gym on this. You're the first Asian American woman to serve on the City Council in Philadelphia. You are serving, if I'm right, in an at-large role, which means that you have to win across the city, is that right?
Helen Gym: There's something really amazing about local politics and it's one of the reasons why I'm so grateful, Melissa, that you're taking a look at it right now. That has a lot to do with the fact that people really do see their local politicians as belonging to them. As being a face for the city, hopefully, a champion for the city and for the issues that they really care about. I think when it comes to women, women of color, women from diverse immigrant backgrounds, it matters a lot that we can carry that forward on behalf of a city of our size.
I know that we certainly dedicated ourselves to really fully embracing not just a picture of what our city looks like, but the issues that really drive communities to be engaged and love the city more than we thought possible.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Councilmember Brooks, you are the first Working Families Party member, elected to City Council. I have a young person who I think of myself as a mentor to, who is involved with the Working Family Party out of Texas. One of the pushback she and I are always having is we're trying to sharpen this mentor-mentee relationship, is I say, "Hey, is this a real party? Are you getting people elected to office? Tell me about how you're seeing the vision of this party." Regularly, your name comes up as, "Don't ask me if we're getting people elected to office. Have you checked out Kendra Brooks?"
Talk to me a bit about what the Working Families Party agenda is and why it mattered to you to run in that party.
Kendra Brooks: For me, once again, I never saw myself as being a politician. When the opportunity came for me to run as a candidate at-large here in Philadelphia, and be authentically myself. I could run on a platform that was based on the work I had been doing on the ground for years. I could run on a platform to talk about my core values. I can connect folks in my community that didn't care about politics, did not vote, was not connected, or felt connected to city government. I can engage them in a way that they have never seen before, and make them feel a part of something.
For me, that's what Working Families Party and my election did for WFP, Philadelphia. When I think about the work that we do nationally, WFP also endorses Democratic candidates, progressive Democratic candidates. We think about early on endorsement of Councilmember Gym, Larry Krasner, Nikil Saval, Liz Fiedler, Chris Rabb and Rick Krajewski, all the left progressive folks here in Philadelphia. That is what the power of Working Families Party can do. These are Democratic candidates that still ran outside of the party lines.
They were far-left progressive, not necessarily having support from the Democratic establishment. WFP gave them some way to sell as well and a political home like the party of your dreams. For me, it was very exciting to build this. I feel honored to be a part of building something that we've never seen before. One of the stories I like to tell. I have young adult children and teenagers. My 22-year-old, when it was time to vote, her friends was like. "We've never voted before. I'm not into politics. None of this is working for me."
I was able to explain to them the platform. My one word to them is, "If voting doesn't matter, if I win, it proves that it does." Because my election was a long shot. There's never been a third-party elected official in the city. Our strategy was outside the box. Political education was grounded in the word because we had to explain what a third party is. What is the minority people party because most people only understood Democrats and Republicans? It was a huge lift but it was a very rewarding experience.
When I won the election, I ran into one of my daughter's friends on the subway going to City Hall. They call me Ms. Nikki. They was like, "Ms. Nikki, now we got to get this other person out," which was Trump. That's how you activate young folks. You have to give them something that they can be excited about. You have to give them something that they can see, they can feel, and envision themselves being a part of. I feel for me that's what WFP is all about.
I want to continue that political education because there are so many folks that are so disengaged with voting in electoral politics. It's time for us to change that because 9 times out of 10, those are the folks that are most impacted.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, WFP may regularly endorse democratic candidates, but Helen had to actually cross party lines in a sense or expand party lines in order to who endorse you and that did ruffle some feathers. I'm wondering what her support is meant to you.
Kendra Brooks: I'm glad you asked this because I wanted to go back when she was speaking earlier. Helen and I go way back from when I used to say we are just moms. I don't know if she remembers this. When the fight for Steel School first happened, she was the first person I called and she was on the train DC to be awarded by President Obama. I was like, "I need your help." She said, "Soon as I get back to the city, we're on it." The fight around the school, we spent long nights in church basements in people's houses organizing a community.
This is more like a sisterhood. I don't think people understand we go that far back. Before I even decided that I would even pick up the mantle and decide to run, I reached out to Helen. I was like, "What do you think?" Once again, this was not my career path. Her support meant a lot. When you can identify with someone who has challenged the status quo and has to stand alone in places and still be a champion. To have someone like that come out and support you, it means a lot. I think that speaks to Helen's commitment to community and commitment to just bringing that whole idea of WFP.
Like bringing political education, bringing people up, and preparing us for something we've never seen before. I think the endorsement, just the support, and just the overall sisterhood. I can't even say collegiality, I'm talking about a sisterhood just being available to help navigate this process has been huge for me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Helen, you want to speak on this moment, this issue as well.
Helen Gym: I am so moved. Kendra and I are sisters. As she said, we do go way back. While she'll talk a little bit about how we met early on, there's no question that I remember that battle so clearly. I remember thinking when I usually walk into these campaigns thinking like, the odds are against us, very few people, low likelihood of success. Surefire, attacks will be coming our way. I walked into the school and I met Kendra, and everything changed. All the odds, everything that you think can't happen, won't happen.
You can meet somebody like her, just a mom like me and together we can prove to be a pretty formidable force. I think one of the things that I love so much about this city and our community movements is that we believe in each other. Sometimes, unfortunately, we don't have anything else. We believe in each other. We believe in our power to make change when we come together. The most unlikely people in unlikely spaces coming together in a fervent belief that our children deserve quality schools, that our neighbors deserve a decent home over their heads.
That we want and demand safe streets that are based on dignity and love and respect for our communities, that these things are not impossible. That they can only really come together when band this unusual sisterhood. Coming together across all different boundaries, bringing together all of our different and disparate experiences. Maybe sometimes even the most painful ones, because we know what happens when we lose. We know what it feels like to bear the consequences of failing schools and communities torn apart and places that don't feel like a home for you.
That desire for us to rebuild that really drives us. I think that Kendra's exactly right, that we formed a sisterhood. When she ran for City Council, not only did I believe that she would win and make history, but that she will go down in history as one of the best council members that the city has ever seen.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The conversation we're having right now is part of a series called Women Leading Locally. I've got two questions for both of you, and I'd love to hear you both weigh in. One is so where are you planning to lead the City of Philadelphia? What good trouble are you going to take this sisterhood and go get into, you can talk about some of what you're actually doing now and some of where you'd like to go next. Maybe we'll start with Kendra and then Helen, and then I'll wrap up with the final question on that.
Kendra Brooks: Well, what's next? We just passed our third iteration of emergency paid sick, so that was huge. I'm so honored to be a part of that work, but my focus moving forward is going to be our budget. The budget season is coming and we need to make sure that we make those investments and the things that we talk about. Where we talk about gun violence prevention, housing as a human right. We need to make sure that we are providing resources for people to stay in their homes.
As well as my focus has been these community gardens, how can we preserve land for communities? Those three things would be my continued fight as we move forward. I believe that creating a stable community starts with housing, starts with community and it starts with safety and those will continue to be my focus. I'm predictable in that, these are three things that I ran on. Those are the things that I'm most committed to. I'm going to continue to champion those types of budget requests, policy requests until we build the city that we all would love to continue to be in.
I love Philly, that's my home and I want to continue to make this a place for other folks to love it as much as I do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Helen?
Helen Gym: That's amazing. Also, more evidence why it's so much fun to be on a City Council that can execute and do a bunch of stuff and be excited and energized. I'll follow up with what Kendra said. A lot of my focus has been on public education and schooling. There's no question that the state of our young people and especially their mental health and their education is my top priority. It's what actually drove me onto City Council because I needed to see the city lift up its young people. We are struggling again. We've got hundreds of vacancies there are people who are leaving the profession.
We've got schools that need to be rebuilt and we've got a GOP legislature that sits on $8 billion in surplus. There is a fight to be had around this. We're looking to lead the charge on a whole host of issues, but especially making sure that when our young people walk through those school doors, there's a team that's ready to take care of them to meet their needs. The testing and all of that, critically important. I got to get young people to love themselves and be in company with one another and learn to love learning again. That feels incredibly important right now.
The second thing is is that my work and the work that the city's been doing on the eviction prevention has taken the fourth-highest evicting city in the nation to reduce its evictions by 75%. We used to do over 20,000 evictions every single year, hundreds and hundreds of them every single week. Overwhelmingly impacting families, single mothers, Black households. We have made a concerted effort to really see those evictions come to a halt. It's our work to show that this was not just a crisis response, but that this is actually a path towards economic stability.
Then ultimately economic security for the city. Then the last thing is is that Kendra and I both come out of strong movements for labor rights. We're excited that there is a big push, for example, Starbucks to organize. We've got four shops here in the City of Philadelphia that we've been out to personally and supporting. This is a year of the worker and I think that this is an opportunity to really change the scales of corporate America, which is grotesquely inversely proportional to value where we overpay at the top and we underpay at the bottom.
The essential workers who are actually doing the work to keep the city running are the ones that are being paid the least. Kendra and I, and many others on City council here will be putting all of our efforts into making sure tat we write those things. That we get the city back on track and back working and investing in the people who make the best city in the country.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The last question is simply this, what does women leading locally mean to you?
Kendra Brooks: To me, it means women coming together organizing, fighting, challenging the status quo. When I first came into council and it was Women's History Month, I think this was last year. We looked at it to find out how many women have held this seat over the years. When you see it's such a small number of women, it told me immediately this is the time. This is the time that we have, I think, seven women on council currently. Our city controller is a woman. What does that mean? It means that we have the power to change things and create something that we've never seen before.
With every opportunity, there's always a challenge. I think as we continue to grow in numbers and our commitment to the city is what's going to help us propel things forward. It's not always easy. It's easy when I talk about the relationship that I have with me and Helen or me and Jamie, but it's bigger than that. Our sisterhood is one thing, but what does it mean to really bring power to all women elected officials in the city? Is part of us just coming together, getting the work done, having the hard conversations, and creating the city that we all want to see.
I think that's what women leading locally means. It's not just elected officials. We have to keep in mind, we don't get this work done in a vacuum. We have to also reach out to our civic leaders, our come community leaders, our non-profit leadership collectively. Is how we're going to change what we don't like currently in our city.
Helen Gym: I would say that women leading-- Women like Kendra and I, as I said before, only come into office when our movements are strong. I feel like I was very fortunate to come up through a matriarchal immigrant women's movement that took on unjust abuses around developments. We fought publicly funded baseball stadiums and gambling casinos in Philadelphia, Chinatown. We learned to reclaim back our public schools. We fought for our young people when they were harmed by state or random violence in our communities.
One of the things that has been incredibly powerful is that women lead all the time. That we are leading on issues that have been devalued and marginalized in the overwhelmingly patriarchal money-driven political sphere. Our challenge was never whether we could lead, but whether we could take on this political world and make it truly be about the things that we cared about and the people we love. To us, that was the ultimate form of politics. That there was not a politic that wasn't about issues that resonated deeply.
Whether you came out of immigrant communities or a church basement in Overbrook or a school in North Philadelphia or a senior center in the Northeast. That these things had to resonate for women in particular. I think part of doing this work leading locally is about toppling a patriarchal vision of society that centers money and power properties and things. As opposed to us as families, as people, as young people, as communities, and especially as women. I hope if anybody's listening that there obviously is a huge spark and wave in terms of an interest in politics.
I do hope that people are excited by local politics because certainly, that's the thing that I find to be the most energizing we're closest to the ground. We're not Councilmember Gym and Councilmember Brooks. We're Kendra and Helen. We're moms at the same time that were city council members raising our own families. Taking care of ourselves, our city, our colleagues, this body. A vision of politics that's not rooted in this idea that there's some kind of hierarchy between federal, state, and local, but actually, just, it's a jurisdiction.
Our jurisdiction is the city that teams with life and vitality and most of all dreams, and it's our job to unlock the potential of our city. If there's one group of people who can unlock potential, it is women and it is women in sisterhood and in partnership with one another. Not just for the sake of our gender, but actually because we've been in the trenches with one another. We've borne consequences and lost. When we have the chance to be in office and when we have the chance to lead, then we will take everything that we've got and just charge.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love it. I think maybe we need to change the name of the series to women lead all the time constantly without stopping. I so appreciate it. Thank you. Philadelphia Councilmembers, Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks. Thank you both for joining us today.
Helen Gym: Thank you so much, Melissa.
Kendra Brooks: Thank you, Melissa.
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