Get inspired by Helen Gym – PAA Week Day 3

We had a great teleconference earlier today with the amazing Helen Gym, a founding member of PAA who is now serving as a Philadelphia City Councilperson.

You can listen to the full audio recording here.

We also heard inspiring, challenging stories from new PAA Board members Zerlina Smith and Laura Bowman, and a some pretty chilling background on Betsy DeVos from Steve Norton, another PAA Board member whose role as an advocate in Michigan has given him a front-row seat to her privatization efforts there.

Here’s a brief summary of the discussion:

Helen (front right) rallies the community

Helen talked about her first contact with PAA before it was even established as an organization. She described the isolation she and so many of us feel in our education advocacy work, and how great it was to find a whole network of like-minded people and knowing she was not alone. At the time, a Republican governor had stripped as much as $1 billion from the state education budget. Public school advocates went to work and were able to get that governor voted out of office. The education issue and education advocates had led this effort and were positioned to be able to take that momentum to the city elections, yet no education candidate had stepped up, so Helen did.

She shared some of the campaign and fund raising strategies that helped her win the most votes of any at-large candidate. She is committed to making sure people know that her election is making a difference in their lives. They were able to stop new charter schools and get nurses back into schools. Today they announced that they will double the number of social workers in each school.

Zerlina, who ran for alderman in Chicago in 2015, asked Helen to talk more about campaign fundraising. Helen had to raise about $350,000 in three months. As a citywide candidate, she had to pay for 4 citywide mailings which cost $80,000 each. This was the hardest part of the work, but she was committed and got it done. Networks like PAA are invaluable in these cases. She felt that having to ask for money helped her be a better candidate, because you have to be humble and realize that you are accountable to a lot of people.


Zerlina then shared some of her story. She became deeply involved as soon as her daughter was in preschool. The school was threatened with closure so she ran for PTA and organized the parents there to successfully fight the closure. She then moved her daughter to a school that was rated very high, and just happened to be 99% Hispanic. She was the only black child. Zerlina began to be concerned about testing and eventually helped organized 99% of the parents and teachers in the school to opt out of the state test.

Zerlina is a powerhouse who is actively involved in dozens of other issues and organizations. She is the first black chair of a statewide political party in Illinois. She is deeply committed to improving the quality of life in her community. They hold “smoke outs” on street corners with food and music to discourage gang activity. In 18 weeks they were able to reduce crime by 25% in that area. She started the Parent Cafe which carries out a variety of activities to help people out in the community, from food to gas and light bills to rent. to shoes and coats for the children. She also has a cable access show, Mothers Who Care. Zerlina is considering another run for alderman.


Then we heard from Laura, who has a  7th grader in the Roanoke Valley schools. She started her PAA chapter 4 years ago after giving Arne Duncan a piece of her mind on one of his bus tours. Every year she sets a federal, statewide and local goal. This year, her goal is opposing charters and vouchers. The governor has vetoed privatization efforts but the.

Last year she started out the year by asking the district testing coordinator for testing transparency, with 12 questions. She shared her letter with PAA, which we offer as a model for parents to use at the beginning of the school year to find out what tests will be given and how those tests will impact other areas of learning. Laura’s approach worked – she was given answers to all of the questions, and the district posted all of the information on the district web site. After she raised questions about the testing of kindergartners,the district decided to drop K testing.

Finally, we got some insider info from Steve about fellow Michigander and current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Steve explained that just about every blockage to fair school funding in Michigan comes from organizations supported and funded by Dick and Betsy DeVos. He warns us not to underestimate her.Her actions are motivated as much by her religious beliefs as by her politics — making a profit means that God approves of your work, in the DeVos credo.

Her position has a great appeal to many people in the US who have been trained to be suspicious of government and are happy to see public funding for education but want it in the hands of private management.

The DeVoses have played a critical role in undermining the Detroit public schools, making charters and vouchers seem more appealing. Steve is concerned that there is no common voice in favor if public education in Detroit – people have become disgusted with the local schools and are more open to “choice.”

It was a very enlightening, inspiring, and exciting session! Thanks to everyone who participated, and especially to Helen, Zerlina, Laura and Steve for sharing their stories.

Posted on by Julie Woestehoff Posted in Misc

Comments are closed.