“Social media is, at its best, a democratization of life,” said Philadelphia City Councilmember At-Large Helen Gym, who addressed Upper School students at Germantown Friends School as part of a special assembly, Exploring the New Political Landscape.
“Social media is, at its best, a democratization of life,” said Philadelphia City Councilmember At-Large Helen Gym, who addressed Upper School students at Germantown Friends School on January 22, 2021, as part of a special assembly, Exploring the New Political Landscape. “At its worst, as we saw this election, it is a means of insurrection.” Gym spoke alongside Pennsylvania State Senator Art Haywood about the troubling state of America’s democracy.
The idea for the event resulted from the GFS assembly committee, a group of Upper School student leaders who plan weekly meetings on a wide variety of interests. Robin Friedman, an English teacher who helped coordinate local politicians for assembly, says that, especially in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, “the thinking behind [the assembly] was that there are political leaders who are hopeful, capable, and positive working locally—let's engage with them and learn from them.” After choosing and inviting Councilmember Gym and Senator Haywood to participate, the committee asked GFS’ Intersectional Equity Club (IEC) to moderate the event. Beginning this school year, IEC leaders Martina Kiewek ’22, Claire Meyer ’22, Allison Katz ’22, and Sam Zimmer ’23 have written weekly articles and held conversations for the student body around local policy and social justice issues. (Attorney General Josh Shapiro was unable to participate in the panel, but sent a pre-recorded video message.)
When it came time to brainstorm questions for the politicians, the club leaders explained that they wanted to cover relevant topics, as well as ones that aligned with the panelist’s top concerns. “We would research the person, look at issues they had worked on in the past, and focus our questions based on that information,” says Meyer.
As moderators, Kiewek, Katz, Meyer, and Zimmer aimed to ask questions that challenged the panelists, while also giving them space to boost their platform and ideas. The three club leaders were excited to engage with state and city politicians because staying local “gives people more of a sense of what they can do about [a problem],” says Kiewek. “It allows us to come up with solutions, to find out how to move forward.”
On the panel, Councilmember Gym implored students to be thoughtful about the kind of media they consume and challenged everyone to go further than staring at a screen: “We actually have to figure out our democracy in a community of people figuring it out together,” she said. The Councilmember also addressed heightened inequities in the Philadelphia Public School District’s shift to virtual learning. She believes that the district was not prepared to support young people’s mental and physical health, and would give the city a poor grade for how they’ve handled the transition.
As a member of the state judiciary committee and the health and human services committee, Senator Haywood spoke about the state’s responsibility in stopping the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Senator Haywood explained that the state needs to focus on freeing more nonviolent offenders, getting vaccinations into the system, and increasing access to testing. Additionally, he mentioned that the PA Department of Corrections is looking into rearranging the population density in certain facilities to improve social distancing measures. While listing the political issues he wants to focus on within the next five years, the Senator included defeating white nationalism, battling income inequality and the shrinking middle class, creating more equality for women, and preventing climate change.
Keiwek, Katz, Meyer, and Zimmer all agreed that the assembly gave them greater respect and trust in people like Councilmember Gym and Senator Haywood. “The way they express themselves seemed a lot more genuine than the contact I’ve had with other political figures,” says Kiewek.
Senator Haywood, in particular, mirrored this transparency when he described America’s stagnant political landscape. “I would say there has been a lot that hasn’t changed” over the past few years, he said. Councilmember Gym believes, however, that local politicians like herself and Senator Haywood can motivate citizens around the possibility of change. She hopes that the events of the past month can be an example to young people (including high school students) that “we have a nation built off of a piece of paper, but the life of our democracy lives right now—its protections, its visions, its hopes, and its possibilities.”