On Monday evening, Penn Justice Democrats and Fossil Free Penn hosted a virtual discussion with Penn graduates and local elected officials Helen Gym and Rick Krajewski, who spoke about
the need for progressive policies to improve the city's racial wealth gap.
At the March 29 event, 1993 College graduate and second-term City Councilmember Helen Gym, the first Asian American woman to serve in the body, and 2013 Engineering graduate Rick Krajewski, who serves as House representative from the state's 188th district, which encompasses Penn's campus, discussed the challenges of local and state progressive victories and the future of progressive organizing.
Gym and Krajewski specifically addressed progressive causes such as supporting a Green New Deal, divestment from the fossil fuel industry, and the disproportionate effect that the policing system has on Black communities and communities of color. Nearly 25 members of the Penn community gathered to hear the officials via Zoom.
Regarding environmental justice in Philadelphia, Krajewski said that organizers must first recognize the immediate damage affecting the local community, especially the working-class and people of color. Within the city, communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are more likely to experience high rates of air pollution and less likely to have access to green spaces, according to a February press release from Philadelphia officials.
“We have children that are being educated in moldy rooms, in a city where one out of three children has asthma — and these numbers are higher for Black and brown people — where we had a refinery blow up in a working-class Black neighborhood,” Krajewski said. “We have all this constant environmental trauma that is happening to people in our city. So when I think about a Green New Deal and the vision for it, that’s the question that I start with: What does it mean to have healthy conditions for our children, so that they can live and learn in an environment that feels like it's actually healthy?”
Although Penn has not committed to divesting from the fossil fuel industry, Krajewski said that one of the means he believes will be effective in leading to potential divestment is building public pressure that pushes the University to do so.
Gym also addressed the past work of Penn community members in fighting for the University to act on climate-related issues impacting local city residents, crediting Penn students' role in pushing for the University’s pledge to donate $100 million over the next 10 years to the School District of Philadelphia. The money will go towards improving building conditions and remediating hazards such as asbestos.
“Thanks to the work of Penn Justice Dems, amongst other [Penn organizers and local activists] — you did make Penn pay the PILOTs money, you won the PILOTs start. While it's not enough, and there's definitely more to win, think about what you were already able to do, that even the Board of Trustees could not turn their heads away from,” Gym said.
Penn has a long history of failing to pay Payments in Lieu of Taxes, financial contributions that property tax-exempt organizations voluntarily make to local governments. Student groups and other local organizations have called on the University to pay PILOTs for years. Demand for the University to take action intensified following the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans, highlighting systemic, race-based inequalities across the nation.
Hundreds of Penn faculty and staff members signed a petition last year calling on the University to pay PILOTs in order to support the Philadelphia public school system, amid significant budget cuts exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a police abolitionist himself, Krajewski called for progressives to push not just for defunding the police, but also for a reinvestment in mental health monitors, recreation centers, and public schools that he believes can help keep communities safe from increased crime.
During the event, Gym and Krajewski also addressed the recent shootings in Georgia that killed eight people, including six Asian women, as well as the pandemic’s effect on anti-Asian violence and what local and state leaders can do to combat this violence.
Gym told attendees that she believes the roots of anti-Asian sentiments in the United States run “long and deep.” She said that pushing for policy reforms such as abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ending mass deportation are necessary to combat anti-immigrant and anti-Asian hate crimes and discrimination.
“[Anti-Asian sentiments in America] did not start with Donald Trump, and do not end with him," Gym said. "[Perpetrators of anti-Asian rhetoric] are sitting members of Congress, county sheriffs, and school board members who continually spew anti-Asian garbage. So we have to be dedicated to the elements that led to Atlanta — ending gun violence and demanding common-sense gun control."
Krajewski added that he is thrilled to see increasing solidarity against nationalism and white supremacy, both of which he said are at "the very core” of violence against people of color.
“The pandemic was not caused by Asian people — it was caused by a racial capitalist system that does not prioritize the health care and well-being of people,” Krajewski said. “Addressing the structural issues that white supremacy creates, in tandem with gun control legislation, is really critical.”
College junior and Speaker Events Director of Penn Justice Democrats Amira Chowdhury, who attended the event, said she felt inspired by Krajewski and Gym’s sentiments and hopes that other students are encouraged to continue pushing for progressive change despite recent hate-based violence and the ongoing pandemic.
“During these times of great economic inequality and greater economic instability, amid a pandemic that’s been going on for an entire year, hope is really needed but hard to maintain. I think a lot of people come to this organizing work to find passion, to give them a purpose to get up in the morning,” Chowdhury said. “I hope [the attendees] got more guidance towards their purpose for getting up in the morning during these challenging times.”
College first year Sarah Sterinbach, a member of Fossil Free Penn who also attended the event, said she was also inspired by the speakers’ advocacy for climate justice and other progressive issues. Gym and Krajewski's work reminded students not to give up on their own efforts, she said.
“It's feels like more than just burnout — it’s hopelessness, and this feeling of 'nothing's ever going to change,'” Sterinbach said. “Events like this show us that there are progressives actively working to change things now. And it inspires us students to see that we can too.”