I love the city of Philadelphia. Because of my enthusiasm, some friends have dubbed me an unofficial ambassador, yes, some would even say pseudo Mayor of the city. But I am just an amateur cheerleader compared to this week’s portrait who gets to promote the city and actually gets a paycheck for it, making him a bit more official than me. Greg DeShields is the Executive Director at PHLDiversity Multicultural Affairs Congress which is part of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB). He’s been in and around the hospitality field for most of his working life, heck he even teaches about hospitality at Temple University. I would name all of the boards that he’s served on, but there wouldn’t be room for the interview. But one position he is excited to tout is his recent appointment to the IBA, the Independence Business Alliance, the Greater Philadelphia’s LGBTQ chamber of commerce.
So you promote the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. Do you hail from these parts?
I do. My parents were both from North Philadelphia and I grew up in West Oak Lane, 71st and Ogontz Avenue.
Tell me about the folks, what did they do?
It’s interesting that you ask that question because I was told by a Native American person that the best way to introduce yourself is by way of your parents. My mother’s name is Delores and for the most part she was a housewife which, for an African American woman back in the 60’s, was somewhat of an unusual opportunity. She was the person who always pushed us to make life better. So as I strived to achieve my goals, I acknowledged that it was because of the genes that I inherited from her. My father, James, or Preston, was a boxer who later became a technician in the Air Force. My ability to be a fighter comes from my father.
Did you play any sports?
My brothers were both athletes and they were extremely good ones. I was the third in line, which I hated because I felt it meant that I would have to be a good athlete as well, but when I went to try out for the football team, they told me I could sit it out. I was okay, just not as good as they were. My interest was more in journalism so I became a writer for our high school newspaper and I covered sports, so that was my connection. I was very good at writing and that’s where I excelled. I still enjoy writing!
From what I understand you are pretty athletic, don’t you get up at 5:30 in the morning to exercise or something crazy like that?
Yes! I walk and bike but I’m really into weight lifting, I have been for some time. My husband gives me new weights almost every year for my birthday so I have a ton of them. During the pandemic, it’s been a way to stay healthy and engaged. My rec room has about 22 speakers so when I’m down here I can blast my music to get motivated. So yeah, it’s a big part of who I am. But the drawback is that shirts don’t fit right! Either they don’t fit in the arms, or they don’t fit in the neck. I have to calibrate it so that I don’t get too bulky or I won’t be able to wear any of my clothes!
You were interested in journalism at a young age, what did you go to school for?
Well, my high school English teacher had an affiliation with KYW radio. They did a program called New Studies, and I believe they still do, where they invite budding journalists to participate in a program to learn about writing. So for 6 weeks I went down to KYW. There was one session with a black writer who came in, and when I told him my aspirations he told me that I was crazy and that I shouldn’t do it because black people don’t ever really achieve success in the field and definitely don’t make any money. So I was like, “Well, so much for that.” I went back and talked to my advisor and he said, “Okay, if you don’t go into journalism, what else would you want to do?” I had no idea so I said that the only thing I really liked was to eat. And he responded, “Well, there’s a college in Rhode Island called Johnson and Wales, and they have a great culinary program. Maybe you’d like the hospitality business.” I had no idea, but they offered to send me to Providence, Rhode Island for the weekend so I said yes. I went up there and fell in love. I fell in love with Providence, I fell in love with the school and I fell in love with a career in the hospitality industry and I made a complete shift in my career goals. Journalism is a part of all the work that I do, so it’s still in my DNA. Even at J&W, I was the editor of the school newspaper and of the yearbook for 2 years, and I freelance for several publications today.
Give me a description of your current work?
My work now is very unique, post covid. I call myself an executive director squared. I’m still the E.D. with PHL Diversity which is a business development division of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. I help secure and support diverse meetings and conventions to get them to come to Philadelphia. The division has been around for 37 years and I served on the board for 13 years before I took the job. Unfortunately, as the pandemic devastated the tourism industry, Philadelphia was not spared. We are funded 85% by the hotel occupancy tax, so with no one staying at hotels, our budget was cut dramatically. But I’ve also been working with Mike Gamble who was shaken by the murder of George Floyd and wanted to do something. He started an organization, Diversity Matters, working with leaders in the tourism field to address diversity, equity and inclusion in the industry and I’ve been working with him to develop programming.
What are some of the issues you face?
Some of the problematic areas center on diverse candidates being able to elevate into leadership roles, so we work on workforce and career evolution, teaching those in the hospitality business to be more inclusive in their diversity, equity and inclusion strategies.
It seems that Philadelphia is doing a pretty good job at diverse marketing. I know there have been several LGBTQ campaigns.
Yes, Philly is one of the founding partners of Tourism Diversity Matters and because of the history and experience that Philly has had, a lot of cities are now emulating us. For instance we launched women and LGBT segments in 2014 which are best practices that other cities are just starting to implement in 2021. So Philadelphia has been a leader, but it’s work that continues so we never rest on our laurels.
And now you’re in a new role as the Vice President of the IBA board.
Yes, it’s exciting. The IBA has been doing some amazing work with businesses cultivating diversity in the workplace and supporting LGBTQ+ businesses and our allies. There have been great workshops and trainings as well as virtual meetups where people can just come and share their stories or what’s going on in their workplaces or lives. It’s a very familial group and they’re doing great work on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community.
What do you like to do when you’re off the clock?
Cooking is a big hobby of mine. Puzzles are a big hobby of mine, and I love to travel. That should probably be number one. And I love cars!
What was your first car and what’s your dream car?
My first car was a 1965 Plymouth Belvedere. I was a newspaper delivery boy and I saved up $200 to buy the car even though I couldn’t drive yet! I didn’t have a driver’s license so my father would not let me drive it until I was old enough. So it sat in front of our house for I don’t know how long. Finally my brother taught me how to drive in exchange for letting him use the car. I think I’m driving my dream car right now, a Cadillac CT4. I’ve always loved luxury sports cars. There’s a black winged version of the CT4 coming out, and I want to be first in line for it!
How many siblings do you have? And who’s the peacemaker, who’s the trouble maker and who’s the funniest?
I have 3 brothers, two older, one younger, and we had a sister but she passed away at age 5. My brothers and I have always been close, [laughing] although we can fall in and out of favor, but no matter which direction you go, it always points back to the four of us. My next oldest brother Sherman, oh, he’s going to kill me for saying this, but he was always the radical one. In the 60’s he had the afro and he was the activist trying to make a difference in the world. My older brother was the peacemaker. I think my younger brother is the funniest, he always kept us laughing. I think because he was the baby of the bunch he had nothing to lose!
Speaking of nothing to lose, when did you come out?
I came out in 1985. I was working at a hotel and there was a guy in the sales department who came out, and I was amazed that he just came out. It was just that simple and I realized, what’s the benefit of not coming out and being fully yourself? I talked to my family and said, “I’m gay and if there’s a problem I’ll just move to California and see you guys on the holidays.” I had an uncle who was openly gay and back in the 40’s that was unheard of. He did move to California and became a doctor with an incredible practice, so I had a role model of a successful, accomplished black gay man. He only came home for holidays but when he did it was spectacular. He was a big inspiration. And I didn’t have to move to California!
What discrimination have you personally faced?
Where do I start? I lead with being black, so most of the discrimination I’ve faced has been because of race. I was a good kid, I did my homework, I obeyed my parents, and I had a part-time job. I remember one instance when I was sitting at the trolly stop waiting to go to my job at the mall. An unmarked police car pulled over and said that I looked like somebody who had robbed a store, so they handcuffed me and put me in the back of the car. I was saying, “I’m going to work! I just left my house, you can drive there and ask my parents!” In today’s world, that probably would have been the end of me. But they were just like, “Nope” and drove me to the store that was robbed. The owner said, “No, he’s not the guy” and instead of taking me to work, or even back to the trolley stop, they just left me stranded there at the store. I remember how vulnerable it made me feel and that’s when I said that I’d never take public transportation ever again. And I think that’s what started my focus on owning cars, I wanted that control of when I could come and go.
Wow. And I know that you give workshops on microaggressions, I’m sure you face those all the time.
Oh yes, when I was working in Atlanta, I was the manager of a 1,300 room hotel. I was the keeper of the keys, the head guy, but I would still get customers who were like, “I don’t want to talk to you, I want to talk to a real manager.” Those kind of scenarios have been constantly peppered into my career and you know, it’s interesting that you bring it up because I was just on a call with 6 established African Americans recently and the interviewer asked, “Hey, have you guys ever experienced any discrimination?” and all 6 immediately answered, “Of course! Where do we begin?” It’s unfortunate, but we all agreed that it’s something that you have to navigate in order to be successful. And it can come from all directions, from leadership, from staff, from clients or customers, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.
Totally random question, any relation to [broadway star] Andre De Shields?
[Laughing] So according to my grandmother, yes. But as a distant relation, through a great uncle or aunt or something.
What’s a fashion style you wish would come back?
I’ve always loved the afro! And if you’re going to have an afro, you have to have a dashiki to go with it! I just bought one the other day just to try it out.
Top 3 restaurants in Philly?
It was the Prime Rib which is now The Rittenhouse Grill, Buddakan would be 2nd, and 3rd would be Tierra Colombiana in the Northeast. They have a Cuban fried chicken which is ‘mwah’!
Two scents that make you stop and reflect?
One is the cologne/perfume Opium. When I used to go on vacation with my mother, she loved Opium. I once asked her, “Do you think men can wear it too?” and she said, “Of course!” and sprayed me with it. Later we were at a restaurant and a lady came over and said, “You smell SO good.” So to this day, I still buy and wear Opium, believe it or not. The other smell that makes me nostalgic is collard greens. I’m a foodie, so it always makes me think of home. And the scent of my husband!
How did you two meet?
I was invited to a lunch with a group called, “Intersections,” I think. He led the program and the minute I saw the smile on his face, I fell in love. I tried to talk to him and he told me that he wasn’t really interested in dating anyone and I thought, “Wow, I’m going to have to figure this out” and eventually I did. We’ve been married for 26 years now!
Nice! Who should play you in your life story or who do you get mistaken for?
I often get mistaken for Arsenio Hall. I’ve even had a few times where I almost said that I was him just for fun, but the person who I’d like to play me is Wesley Snipes. And here’s why: to me in terms of black actors out there, he’s got so much range. He can play serious, he’s funny, he’s charismatic, he can be macho or he can be in drag and it’s all good. I may look like Arsenio, but I want Wesley Snipes to play me.
Well, I’ve met Arsenio and you are much better looking than him, and nicer. I much prefer having you as an ambassador for our city!
Why thank you, it’s an honor. I love this town too.