I just finished watching a documentary called “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” available on Amazon Prime. It was produced by my friend, the amazing Lisa Cortes. The film features Stacey Abrams and traces the history of voting rights in this country. If you ever needed a reminder of how sacred and tenuous the right to vote is, it’s a moving and maddening recount of what so many sacrificed to ensure that (most) of us have the privilege. It inspired me to seek out someone locally who is also working to empower people to vote, Gregory O. Yorgey-Girdy. Yorgey-Girdy is an entrepreneur, community leader, and an attorney who is currently putting most of his energy in helping get out the vote. As co-chair of the Liberty City Democratic Club and Democratic Committeeperson for his ward in South Philly, Greg is “All In” to make sure PA stays blue. I spoke to the charismatic and driven citizen to find out what gets him fired up.
Good morning Gregory O. Yorgey-Girdy!
Hey, you did pretty good with that! Usually people tend to butcher it, it is quite a mouthful.
What is the origin?
Well, my last name was Girdy. I come from a biracial family background, and most of them were in New York until the black folks went south to Louisiana and the white folks stayed in New York. I checked our genealogy at one point and was shocked to find that I’m close to 40% Irish. Then we added the Yorgey when I got married to my husband, Paul. It’s funny, some people think that I’m Russian when they just see the name! We have three kids and it’s unfortunate that the poor things will have to grow up with that crazy hyphenated name!
So do all your exes live in Texas? Which is my sneaky way of asking where you’re from.
I am from Texas and yes, I don’t have many exes, but the ones I have do live in Texas and I still keep in touch with most of them. I’m a Leo, born on August 12th, and as such I believe in a true commitment. And even when things are over, I try to keep a good connection. I believe that everything happens for a reason, even if it’s adversity, which I relish because it’s something to learn from and use for the next chapter. And I’ve had a couple of my exes refer some really good cases to me so it’s been good for business!
Tell me about life in the Lone Star State.
I was born in a small town called Victoria. It’s between Houston and Corpus Christi. Even as a kid I always felt like I didn’t belong, that I should have been born in a big city. Where I grew up it was very segregated, it was black, or brown, or white and we all had our places. I knew that was ridiculous and that I needed to get out and live somewhere with more diversity.
What was family time like?
In some ways, very traditional. In the household, the men ate before the women and even as a kid I thought that was weird, that I got to eat before my grandmother. But I later learned that she ran the show and she kept the illusion that the men came first, but she was the reckoning force. Her property was huge and she carried a pistol with her at all times. Her place was enclosed by huge, black iron gates but they were always open so she could feed and help those that needed it.
What did your folks do?
My mom was a nurse and my dad was a football coach, a very successful coach even though he was a very soft-spoken man. They divorced when I was very little but they stayed close and were good friends.
Let’s go over your bona fides. Your school career encompasses a minor in Psychology and a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Texas, a Juris Doctor degree from Widener University Law School, and Master of Business Administration degree from Temple. Couldn’t you decide what you wanted to be when you grew up?
[Laughing] You know? This is going to sound crazy but when I was young, I had a book that I used to keep and I would write in it all the things I wanted to accomplish, with dates! All of the things came to fruition, even if it took a little longer than expected. Except for the first thing, I wanted to become a doctor since my mother was a nurse but I went to work with her once and the minute I saw someone bleeding I passed out. So law school it was.
In Texas you served as manager for the Crime Victims’ Compensation Unit. Explain what you did there?
That was under the office of the Attorney General and my job was to compensate crime victims, but what I’m proud of is finding ways to creatively compensate same-sex couples who were not recognized at the time. The unfairness of it all prompted me to really go ahead and get my degree in law and move up north.
What was the biggest culture shock moving to Philadelphia?
The housing, Philly row homes packed in together. Every time my mother visits she says, “How can you live on top of each other?” Because we’re used to our closest neighbor being a 1/4 mile away and being surrounded by trees and animals. That being said, I arrived in Philadelphia in the fall on a beautiful day, crisp air, not a cloud in the sky and it was breathtaking. I’ve loved it ever since. I belong in a city.
What got you involved in politics?
It was a surprise to me because I’ve always been very shy. I’m overly critical of myself and was afraid to put myself out there for other people to critique. But at the same time, I’ve always been the type to speak up for others when I thought something wasn’t fair. It’s what led me to the Crime Victims position and then law school and to where I am now as a committee person and the co-chair of Liberty City. The organization in the past was not as diversified as it could and should have been. It’s important for people to see themselves reflected everywhere. Especially having two black sons, I want them to know they can be more than just athletes, not that that can’t be amazing, but that there’s more out there. Not to let people dictate who you are or can be. When I first started practicing law, I was young and black and had a severe Southern accent so people automatically assumed I was stupid. Ok, think what you will, but I’ve done my research. I don’t come to any party without a bottle of Bourbon.
[Laughing] That’s the most Southern thing you’ve said so far!
Yes, it comes out when I’m passionate! But politics have always been a part of me, I’ve always been about putting myself in a position to try to make positive change.
Your current title is Manager of Conflicts. Could you take over the world and do something please?
I don’t know about the world, but hopefully we can make a difference here in November.
You have several different types of work in Philly.
Yes, I started working for Mayor Street. And I have to say, whatever people might think of him, he’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. He was the first one in and the last to go every single day but anyway, one of the things I had to do was defend the city and different agencies like the police and fire department from lawsuits filed against them. One I’ll never forget was taking a deposition from a little old lady who’d been hit by a police car. She was an older Black woman, very petite, and she’d been legally crossing the street when she was struck by a police car on its way to a scene. She didn’t die but was hurt, broken bones, etc. She told me that all she wanted was money to pay the medical bills, not a dime more. She was the sole caretaker for her grandkids and needed to get back to work to care for them… [tears up], sorry, I still get emotional thinking about this. The officer that hit her, a lieutenant, comes in and — I kid you not — says, “Well, she should have gotten out of my way.” I told him to leave. We settled that case — quickly. Trust me, we took care of her, I made sure that that woman could take care of her babies, but that case changed me.
Wow. Well, speaking of changes, we have an election coming up, let’s hope we’re in for some big changes.
We must. It’s even more important than ever right now. After the loss of RBG it’s even more frightening than ever. If homeboy gets reelected, there are two more justices who may not make it another 4 years, which would mean two more appointments within his grasp. It’s terrifying, but as I said, I thrive from adversity and I think hopefully this “wake up” call will galvanize people to do anything you have to do to vote and to make sure those around you make a plan as well.
Tell me what organizations you work with and what they are doing to get out the vote.
I’m the co-chair of the Liberty City Democratic Club which is a democratic organization for the LGBT+ community in the Philadelphia area. We just did a livestream program with Jonathan Lovitz, the creator of phillyvoting.org, and we’re partnering and supporting voter registration drives and phone banking with other organizations. We’re trying to push our boundaries and do things like going to barber shops to reach young Black men and to places where we can reach young folks to talk about the importance of voting. It can be hard when people are worried about what they’re going to eat tomorrow rather than who they’re going to vote for, but we try to share, in terms folks can understand, why things like the passing of RBG are so important, and how voting can help ensure that you have food not just for tomorrow but for the days after as well.
I’m also on the board of Philly, Set, Go 2020, which is a group of young people dedicated to millennial engagement in politics. I don’t know why they picked me but it’s a bipartisan progressive organization and I like helping young people get active in the community, so I’m happy to help. I’m also still a committee person in the ward where I live and we’re very active, we go door to door when we can and also, because of Covid 19, we’ll be setting up in local parks to register people and pass out flyers on how and when to vote, because there’s a lot of confusion.
It is confusing, trying to figure out the deadline to register and the deadline to request a mail-in ballot or the deadline to submit a mail-in ballot, etc. The only definitive date I found was October 19th, which is the deadline to register to vote. That was from the PA Voters Services website and you can register online with them.
Yes, there is a lot of confusion, and it’ll be compounded when it’s time to vote because a lot of places where you would normally vote will be changed because of Covid. That’s why we encourage people to vote as soon as possible and/or to make a plan for the day of. It’s too important this year. You need to make sure you vote in this election.
So back to you, you’re a married man, how and when did that happen?
We met about 16 years ago, I was at Woody’s and I saw a guy go by wearing a Texas Longhorns shirt. I stopped him and said, “Did you go to Texas?” and he laughed and said, “No, the shirt just matched my shoes”. And that’s how we met, since then we got married and adopted three kids.
Since your dad was a coach are you a sporty guy?
Yes, I love football, I’m an avid Longhorn’s fan, I’ve had season tickets for over 20 years. I also do a lot of boxing training, I love to run, and lately I’ve gotten into playing golf. I’m horrible at it, but I enjoy it.
First boy crush?
I don’t think I had one. You have to realize that I was from Texas so unfortunately, I spent most of my life trying to hide things. But that’s a whole other interview! I had a female crush though, it was Whitney Houston. After that it was Mariah, but my first love was Whitney and the reason was kind of crazy. I went to a concert of hers in Austin, Texas and I sat next to this straight man. I didn’t know him but when Whitney started singing it was so beautiful that we held hands and cried while she sang. It was the most ridiculous thing ever, but I’ll never forget it.
[Laughing] I tried to hit on Whitney when she performed at the Mann Music Center. I got to meet her backstage, but Robyn was there and wasn’t having any of it!
Shut up! We have to meet for drinks!
You’re on. What historical figure do you wish you had met?
Thurgood Marshall. I’d love the chance to ask how he navigated the racism he faced while completing the studies that he needed to rise to the level that he did. Fighting against stereotypes and people who believed that because of the color of his skin he’d never be able to achieve what he did. I’d like to know what he used to keep himself motivated in the face of everything.
What was your favorite toy as a kid?
It was a blue cape. I’d wear it with boots and shorts and it made me feel like a superhero. [Laughing] It was probably a good indication that I was going to be gay.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done?
For me it was riding a wooden roller coaster at Astro, which was the equivalent of Six Flags in Texas. I was six years old and it was horrifying for me.
I feel you, I’ve never been on a rollercoaster. I don’t like the idea of not being able to stop if I want to. What’s a wish you make again and again?
That my three kids grow up to be happy, healthy, and to fulfill all their dreams, whatever they may be.
And that we have a new president-elect come November…
Now that goes without saying!