Sharmain Matlock-Turner Shares Lessons She's Learned

December 4, 2011

SMT from Journal

The General” is the first female leader of the Urban Affairs Coalition (UAC). As president, Sharmain Matlock-Turner manages a budget of $29 million with 400 employees across the parent organization and its 78 partners. The UAC began as the Black Coalition that was initially established to help quell the unrest after the urban riots in the 1960s. Most recently the name was changed from the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition to the UAC. Through its 40-year history, the Coalition has trained thousands of individuals, found jobs for the unemployed and underemployed, assisted families in finding adequate and affordable housing, and provided fiscal and management support for hundreds of nonprofit organizations. This year the Coalition has gotten into the business of helping reduce the “digital divide” in partnership with Drexel University and the City of Philadelphia.

At the helm for 13 years, she’s proud that the Coalition is becoming a regional player with current and proposed partners in Bucks, Chester and Montgomery counties; New Jersey; and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Md. “I’ve been lucky with opportunities, and I really love this job,” she acknowledges.

Matlock-Turner was born in North Garden, Va. in Albemarle County near Charlottesville. The family moved to Baltimore for a while, and then to Philadelphia. She is oldest of three children — her brother and sister live in Scranton, Pa.

Some of her fondest childhood memories include traipsing around the hills in Virginia, being free all day — baseball, peaches, church on the porch, watermelon and visiting people.

Naturally, her first mentors were her grandmother (whom she defines as “feisty,” refusing to accept the reference to her as “auntie” (a term often used by southern whites to refer to older Black women), and her mother. Her grandfather always worked the land or some other job so his wife did not have to work. Matlock-Turner visited with her grandparents every summer and smiles as she reminisces about those days in the country. Her mother taught her to sew, and she started making her own clothes at age nine. She also taught her to lay carpet and how to paint. Her mother stressed responsibility, even awakening Matlock-Turner one night at midnight because she hadn’t finished a paint job she had started earlier that day. She describes her mother (now 83 years old) as always beautiful and dignified.  

She speaks proudly of having a loving family and is so very happy to have met and married her husband, Anthony “Tony” Turner. “This is an unbelievable, special time in my life with him, my two daughters (Ayana Matlock and Naima Turner) and being a grandmother for the first time. I enjoy being home.”

She credits Councilwoman Marian Tasco with teaching her a lot. Tasco helped her to evaluate situations and has always been generous with her time. Sharmain says that she has always tried to be around people who know more than she does, as “I can’t learn if I’m the smartest one in the room. I’m an experiential learner, although I do read and study; and, if I find I can’t do it, I let folk know,” says Matlock-Turner.

Other mentors include state Rep. Dwight Evans and her employer-mentor, the late Sen. Roxanne Jones, “Many people wondered why I would work with Sen. Jones and thought it would not be a good mix because she was not a parrot of the Philadelphia elite — always a part of and advocate for the working class and low-income families. I worked with her in North Philadelphia for nine years, and we learned from each other. She showed me how to work in communities with people with different views.”

Evans says that he met Matlock-Turner in the early 1970s when she was chief of staff to state Rep. John White Jr. and says, “You couldn’t find a better person. She’s a great friend, mother, wife and grandmother. I recently visited South Africa and focused on the significance of the emerging democracy, and the fact that the most [important] component of the democracy is the citizenry. Matlock-Turner is a good, solid citizen of the city, state, country — in fact; she’s a great worldwide citizen. She’s been an essential part of almost every community, political and social issue, project and concern in the city and we are fortunate to have her in this city. I am honored that she would think enough of me to even mention me as one of her mentors.”

Matlock-Turner has been volunteering for many, many years and her mother often wonders if she gets paid for all of the things she does. She references her work with the Black United Fund and Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation, West Oak Lane Charter School where she is a founder and board chair; Children’s Scholarship Fund, Citizens Bank Advisory Board, co-founder of ARISE Charter School. However, she’s cutting back some on outside activities and at this time and her major concern is education reform noting that it is key to a person having a sense of themselves and how to harness it to do what one needs and wants to do.

Other roles she assumes include her weekly appearance on WURD Radio as a talk show host and as a periodic panelist on “Inside Story” on 6 ABC.

In her spare time, this self-proclaimed neat freak and putterer enjoys a good glass of wine, gardening, Pinochle and TV drama mini-series. Recently she began yoga and meditation, which she finds calming and centering. Her favorite vacation destination is Aruba.

Matlock-Turner credits her years at West Philadelphia High School, Penn State, Temple University and membership in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. with establishing lifelong friendships.

Reflecting on the decades since the passing of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, she notes that there is still discrimination against people because of the color of their skin, although many say they don’t discriminate. She speaks of people dedicating their entire lives to working to advance the rights of people of color and acknowledges the commitment, contributions and accomplishments of Malcolm X and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Locally, she refers to Charles Bowser, and the work of the Black Political Forum and John White Sr., Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. and Hardy Williams, among many other local politicians and activists.

She readily acknowledges lessons learned and the respective teachers include Kevin Dow who emphasizes “Focus & Finish,” meaning it’s important to stay engaged until change occurs as well as the Sisters of Mercy with whom Matlock-Turner gained an understanding that if there is nothing to be able to reinvest at the end of the day, you’re not doing what you need to be doing.

Matlock-Turner has also learned that a high degree of professionalism is of paramount importance to the success of an organization. The company has to have good people, the leadership has to go outside of his/her circle, and the whole organization has to search and invest in systems and structures. It must have a good board, effective finance management and auditing, and raise the question of what more can be done to develop structures that can stand the test of time.

The organization also needs to focus on capacity building to explore and identify how to measure its success and show how it has made a difference. The powers-to-be have told organizations how to count (document) and then say, “We don’t like the way you counted.” So, it’s incumbent for them to realize their “ETO-Efforts to Outcome.”

Responding to the query, if you weren’t doing this, what else might you be doing? She says, “If I were doing something else at this time, it would be something related to Clean Up Philadelphia. I’d remove all trash, fundraise for community-based organizations, have mobile trash pick up machines in the neighborhoods, conduct lots of educational programs, have a Pick Up Philadelphia Campaign with contests, deputize youth and utilize Trash Rangers.”

For the Urban Affairs Coalition, her goal is to keep it fresh and on the cutting edge of employment, housing and the digital divide — to keep it relevant so people view it as a place to come to solve problems.

She envisions her next steps to include some role in the media engaging people in a give-and-take and has no aspirations of an elected position. “It’s time for new people to be out front, and I’m constantly looking for opportunities to encourage young people. “I called a young man whose picture I saw on the front page of The Tribune and told him that I’d like to meet him. I like working with the next generation of leaders and to share with them: ‘This is what I learned vs. This is what you need to do’; to do less preaching and more teaching — an atmosphere of listening and sharing.” When I was younger and attended meetings, I was told to ‘sit down, shut up and this is what you are going to do.’ We’ve had our turn. Let’s give them the best of what we have!”


Books: “The Tipping Point,” “The Good Earth,” “Pearl Buck” and anything by Walter Mosley.

Movies: “West Side Story,” “Porgy & Bess” and “Jumping The Broom

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Barbara Daniel Cox
Philadelphia Tribune