This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
"Behold the face of true democracy.”
The shout came from one of more than 500 activists packed into the Arch Street United Methodist Church during the first break at City Councilwoman Helen Gym’s Thursday night community action meeting, attended by both veteran activists and those inspired by the election results to get involved in local politics for the first time.
The meeting, called “Beyond the Protests,” sought to channel the energy of those protesting President Trump into organizing around specific political causes.
Attendees first entered the church to a crowded room full of tables run by 20 local organizations representing progressive causes from immigration reform to racial and economic justice – some newly formed and others that have been around for years.
Participants came from 20 zip codes, and by the end of the night they had donated more than $18,000 to the organizations and made more than 1,700 commitments to volunteer.
At the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ table, the union distributed “Know Your Rights” information sheets for undocumented students and families in both English and Spanish. They also handed out a sheet on state legislation that the PFT is organizing to oppose: the elimination of property taxes and increasing the amount of money in the program that gives tax credits to businesses for donating to organizations that give students scholarships to private and parochial schools.
The property tax measure under consideration would divert school costs from property taxes to sales and income tax increases without changing the distribution of resources –meaning that poorer taxpayers would support lavish spending in wealthy districts without seeing more money for their own schools. The tax credit program, called the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) is called "vouchers lite" by opponents.
Hillary Linardopoulos, a staff representative at the PFT, said that helping to educate Philadelphia communities about the political process and their rights is part of the union’s work.
The Working Educators’ caucus had a table where they signed up activists and teachers for a Philadelphia Troublemakers School on March 25, where participants will learn about successful organizing and build alliances across unions. They also encouraged attendees to return to the church on March 11 for a Solidarity Forum — a regularly scheduled meeting of grassroots organizers and activists working on a broad spectrum of issues.
“It feels like we’re organizing an uprising,” said Kelly Collings, a co-chair of the caucus. “We’re trying to figure out how to move protesters into organizations and structures that deepen their involvement.”
The event started late, and by the time everyone had filed into the church, there was hardly an open seat left in the massive space. People continued to arrive throughout the next two hours, and latecomers found themselves standing in the back of the room.
“Philadelphia didn’t become the nation’s poorest large city by itself,” Gym said to a crowd that was audibly full of energy. “We became the poorest big city when profits came before people, when tax cuts for millionaires came before the rights to food, housing, and health care.”
Applause began to burst through her every pause before she finished speaking.
“When communities are over-policed and we accept the idea that we can somehow arrest or incarcerate our way out of the problems we face,” Gym said, “when we justify the underfunding of our schools as normal — that’s how we’ve come to be the poorest large city in America.”
Gym stressed that although the new president makes these causes far more urgent, they did not originate with his presidency.
“We will talk about Martin Luther King Jr., but not only that he had a dream. We will talk about a warning that he gave to us that America can go to hell when it becomes ruled by wealth rather than served by it,” Gym said to cheers from the crowd. “That is the moral agenda for our time.”
After a burst of applause, Gym asked the crowd to take a pink card out of the folder they were handed when they entered the church. They used the card to give their contact information to organizations of their choice and committed to volunteer for them. Gym’s staffers stood in the aisles and collected the cards.
Reggie Shuford, executive director of Pennsylvania’s ACLU, spoke about the organization’s work representing refugees who have been refused entry into the country as a result of Trump’s executive order.
“These executive orders, as unconstitutional as they are, will continue to come at lightning speed,” Shuford said. “We need to reach out to our elected officials even if they’re trying to hide — we see you, Toomey.” Laughter filled the room at the reference to weekly protests at U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s offices around the state. “You can run, but you cannot hide.”
Erika Almiron, executive director of the immigrant advocacy organization Juntos, said the organization has “been getting calls non-stop from families who are scared” of deportation. Almiron said she’s seen a massive increase in the number of people attending Juntos’ workshops for undocumented immigrants to learn their rights in regards to deportation.
“In an office that usually has 40 chairs, we had 140 people last night learning their rights,” Almiron said. “I put out a post on Facebook saying I needed more chairs. I now have 130 chairs.”
But despite the influx of support, she said, Juntos still needs more volunteers for marches, phone calls to legislators, and generally supporting families struggling with deportation.
“A white supremacist and his cronies have taken over the White House. We need you to show up now more than ever,” Almiron said. “I need to grow an organization that is willing to show up for the 50,000 undocumented folks in this city and the thousands more across the state.”
Gym asked the crowd to fill out another colored card with options to volunteer for public actions, such as marching and showing up at the offices of their elected officials.
The councilwoman told the crowd about an incident in late January when two families flying into Philadelphia airport were denied entry into the United States as a result of the President’s executive order. Gym said she and Mayor Kenney “put out a call” for protests at the airport.
“And because people came, a governor came and a United States senator followed,” Gym said. “This is not a place for politicians to lead, it’s a place for people to be in the front.”
“When hundreds of people showed up at the airport, an Eastern District judge stayed up until 2 a.m. to issue a stay on those families being deported,” Gym said. And after tens of thousands turned out to protest at airports around the country, she said, a federal judge blocked Trump’s Muslim ban.
“That is truly what it means to be in power,” Gym said.
Larissa Mogano, an organizer from Cobbs Creek and one of the co-founders of Tuesdays with Toomey, spoke about the way the inauguration galvanized her to go from a social media “group of seven women to a statewide initiative with over 1,000 constituents showing up weekly to all of his offices combined.”
“We didn’t know we were starting a movement. We were just some ladies on Facebook trying to figure out how to channel our rage. … I work in audio/video production. For 20 years, I’ve been a strictly behind-the-camera person, but look at me now,” Mogano said to applause. “I’m terrified, by the way.”
“I’m doing this because my discomfort is nothing compared to other people’s’ suffering, and I believe that whatever privilege I have should be used to pull other people up,” she said. “I realized if I want something done I can’t wait for somebody else to do it — I am somebody.”
She explained that Tuesdays with Toomey is focusing on local elections, and Toomey is “far from our only target.”
Gym introduced her “mentor,” the Rev. Gregory Holston, the leader of Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), an interfaith coalition of city congregations, unions, and progressive activist groups. He talked about POWER’s work to win 4,000 workers a raise at the airport, their advocacy for a fair-funding formula for public school districts in Pennsylvania, and their successful pressure on Philadelphia’s last round of Democratic mayoral primary candidates to oppose the former mayor’s policing policy known as stop-and-frisk.
During the fundraising portion of the event, Carolyn Adams spoke about the meaning she’s found in being a volunteer and regular donor to Public Citizens for Children & Youth.
“These organizations are the guardians of the public purpose between elections,” Adams said. “Your dollars and my dollars are probably smaller than what these organizations can raise from foundations … but our dollars are the most important because they can be used for anything.” Funds from foundations or the government have requirements for how they can be spent, she said.
After announcing their total fundraising haul of $18,691, Gym talked about her motivations as a politician.
“I ran for office because I believe in the power of municipalities and cities to do so much more, even when Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. are the way they were on Nov. 8 and Nov. 9,” Gym said. “When they go low, we go local. … That’s what it means to grow a movement.”
Gym’ closing remarks echoed the same theme as Naroen Chhin — a Cambodian immigrant and board member of the One Love Movement that formed to resist deportation efforts in his community — in a speech earlier that night.
“We have to go local because all policies start local; all change starts local,” Chhin said before quoting an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, you go alone. If you want to go far, we go together.”