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    Up Close and Personal with Outgoing SF Pride Executive Director George Ridgely

    By Louise “Lou” Fischer–

    George Ridgely, the sixth Executive Director to lead SF Pride, announced back in May that after five and a half years, six Pride weekends and thousands of hours of sleep debt, he was stepping down at the conclusion of this year’s Pride. I’ve known George for years and have always been impressed with his humility, unpretentious demeanor and level of unflappability in a job that has been derided as a “one-way ticket to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.” Rudyard Kipling may well have time-traveled to the future and channeled George when he wrote the poem If–.  “If you can keep your head when all about you/are losing theirs and blaming it on you.”

    Even as the face of SF Pride, George never made it about himself; his focus was always on the team and the community. In a position where, on any given day, 50% of the community completely loves you (bigger parade and celebration! raise more sponsorship money! more community stages!) and the other 50% is in complete disagreement (parade is too long! celebration is too big! get rid of corporate sponsors! too many community stages!), George managed to find a balance among the competing interests while churning out six successful Pride celebrations.   

    In honor of his service, I asked George to give me, for the San Francisco Bay Times, a farewell interview to share memories and some juicy “behind the scenes dish” (as expected, he was way too polite to divulge any gossip).

    George Ridgely and Folsom

    Lou Fischer:  Where are you from and where did you live before SF?

    George Ridgely: I grew up in a small town called Upper Marlboro in Southern Maryland, near Washington, D.C.  I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and lived there for eight years before relocating to San Francisco. 

    Lou Fischer:  What were you doing before you took the job with SF Pride?

    George Ridgely: I started my career in restaurant and hospitality management and transitioned to event management in 2002.  I served as the Director of “Bay to Breakers” for 11 years and “Castro Street Fair” for 16 years. 

    Lou Fischer:  Why did you apply for the job with SF Pride?

    George Ridgely: After 11 rewarding years of leading the Bay to Breakers team, I wanted to focus my energy, knowledge and experience on an event that served my own LGBTQ community. As a gay kid growing up in a small town, I never dreamed I could lead one of the most iconic Pride events in the world. The job is a privilege; I worked with some of the most talented and dedicated event professionals in the city.

    Lou Fischer: What is the workload and how did you avoid burnout?

    George Ridgely: The workload is intense; 90-hour weeks in the months leading up to the event are the norm, but the rewards make it worthwhile. Seeing the joy on someone’s face who is experiencing their first Pride melts away the exhaustion. Without a great team, I would have burned out earlier. Also, I’d be remiss not to mention a key member, my most loyal (and lovable) co-worker, my dog Folsom.

    Lou Fischer: Your dog is adorable and so gentle. Tell me more about him.

    George Ridgely: I adopted him from Animal Care and Control in the fall of 2014 and he hasn’t left my side since. He is a mix of boxer and German shepherd and he just turned five in May. He has his own office chair and is at most of our meetings. His presence is a calming influence during stressful times. We only have four full-time staff in the office and, at one point, we had four dogs; now we are back down to two dogs, Folsom and Saffy (Alvaro’s dog).

    Lou Fischer: Of all the Grand Marshals you met, who was the most memorable for you?

    George Ridgely: SF Pride has recognized hundreds of people since 1970 and more than 50 during my tenure alone. If I have to pick one individual that left a lasting impression on me, it was 2014 Community Grand Marshal Jewlyes Gutierrez, the transgender teen from Hercules. Jewlyes was a victim of bullying and harassment in her high school who was charged with assault and battery for defending herself. She is a humble and brave individual who was so genuinely thrilled to be embraced by the Pride community. Her parents accompanied her to our official events and her mother’s gratitude toward me and the organization remains, for me, a constant reminder of why Pride is significant and necessary. 

    Lou Fischer: What is one project or action that you are proud of and that you regard as your “stamp on the organization”?

    George Ridgely: The new project that we launched this year to repurpose worn-out Market Street rainbow flags. Every June, Pride installs and maintains the rainbow flags along Market Street. Tattered flags are retired and normally end up in crates in our storage facility. I wanted to see them brought back to life through art, so we donated 30 of the flags to the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Francisco and invited the kids to deconstruct and reconstruct the flags across various artistic media. The program caught the attention of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and they donated a gallery to showcase the work. The project evolved into an exploration of identity (gender, ethnicity, culture, community and love) and was recognized by Mayor Breed and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. The show is still running at YBCA through July 14.

    Lou Fischer: What is your new job and what will you be doing?

    George Ridgely: I accepted a job with the City and County in the Recreation and Parks Department as the Manager of Permits and Reservations. I love the work I do, and this seemed like a natural next step. We have such a beautiful park system and there is so much joy in creating the space for people to come together to celebrate, relax, play and connect to the outside world. I’m excited to do that across the entire park system.

    Lou Fischer: What advice do you have for the next ED of Pride?

    George Ridgely: You have to be equal parts parent, diplomat, therapist, visionary, pragmatist—all with the occasional touch of magician. At times, the job is a very demanding commitment; as producers, we can create the physical stages, venues and platforms, but it’s the community that carries the message for full equality—our visibility is the key to meaningful and lasting change.

    Lou Fischer: Any last words to share?

    George Ridgely: Yes, and it’s from a song called “Birmingham” by one of my favorite bands, Shovels and Rope. The line is: “It ain’t what you got, it’s what you make.” That lyric speaks to me. We all have a gift, something we are good at. Don’t just keep it for yourself; use it to make something for somebody else.

    Pride by the Numbers

    4 full-time staff members
    12 part-time event contractors
    Approximately 2,000 Pride volunteers
    280 Parade contingents
    200 exhibitors/booths
    35,000–50,000 Parade participants
    An estimated 1,000,000 visitors and spectators
    $3.2 million annual budget for SF Pride
    $1.8 million cost to put on the festival
    $2 million sponsorship commitments for 2019

     Louise (Lou) Fischer is a Former Co-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club and has served as an appointed and elected Delegate for the State Democratic Party. She is a proud graduate of the Emerge California Women’s Democratic Leadership program, was a San Francisco Commissioner and has served in leadership positions in multiple nonprofit and community-based organizations.