Surrounded by friends in a women’s-only lion dance/kung fu class in 2001, Helen Gym was moved by the opportunity to study something she had witnessed on numerous occasions as so integral to a community’s cultural life. She found the teacher, Sifu Shu Pui Cheung, to be profoundly committed to artistic excellence and community. He demanded that same kind of commitment from his students, so she decided to focus on the practice of lion dance/kung fu more intensively.
The classes in Sifu Cheung’s Hung Kar Kung Fu Studio in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, had her sharing the floor with accomplished practitioners, enabling her to set ever-expanding artistic goals for herself. One of her first public performances involved a sparring duet with a senior student who was a superb performer at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. Since that time she has performed as part of Sifu Cheung’s troupe at weddings, business openings, and community festivals and parades. According to Ms. Gym, Sifu Cheung instills in all his students an obligation to not only learn one’s craft well, but also to give back to the broader public. These community performances are one way to “give back.”
She began teaching lion dance/kung fu as an apprentice to Sifu Cheung, and has now been teaching and directing the lion dance/kung fu ensemble at the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School on her own for several years. With students returning year-after-year to gain more mastery in the art, they are, as she says, “becoming thoughtful practitioners . . . loving that an art form they have often seen portrayed in a caricatured way is becoming known to them in all its complexity and meaning.”
Her dedication to teaching extends beyond lion dance, tied as it is to a vision of what education can be and do. A community activist as well as an artist, Ms. Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education, a citywide parent group focused on school budgets and funding to improve achievement and accountability in the public schools, and a former Philadelphia Public School Notebook editor. In 2000, she coordinated media relations for two coalitions successfully opposing a baseball stadium in Chinatown, and in 2001-2002, helped lead a city-wide campaign to limit the privatization of the Philadelphia public schools. She previously served as a board member of Asian Americans United, and is a founder of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School. She was named the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Citizen of the Year in December 2007 for her work in education, immigration and community activism. Ms. Gym is a frequent writer and speaker on Asian American issues and education, and blogs at thenotebook.org. In 2016, Ms. Gym was seated as a Philadelphia City Councilwoman and is the first Asian American woman to hold this position.
Among her numerous awards are the National Award of Distinction for “a person of national or international reputation making an outstanding contribution in the field of education,” presented by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education in 2009; recognition as a “40 and under Emerging Connector,” Philadelphia’s 101 Emerging Connectors, by Leadership Philadelphia Inc., in 2008; the “STAR Commitment to Education EDDY Award,” presented by the Philadelphia Education Fund in 2007, and the 2017 Rising Star Award from EMILY’s List, a national organization supporting women in office.