Sharmain Matlock-Turner: A leader sparking change and collaboration across Philadelphia
As the President of the Urban Affairs Coalition, Sharmain Matlock-Turner helps provide numerous opportunities to help Philadelphians thrive.
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If there’s one thing you can say about Sharmain Matlock-Turner, it’s that she has a fearless determination to make a positive impact for others.
It’s a trait she likely developed from her ancestors.
Her grandfather worked in the coal mines of West Virginia, raising money to buy land for his parents so they would no longer be sharecroppers.
“I’m proud to say that the land that he fought so hard for is still in our family today,” Matlock-Turner said during an interview with AL DÍA.
Originally from just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, Matlock-Turner moved to Philadelphia with her mother as a child after her parents’ divorce, to join her sister and other relatives who were already living in the city.
After starting out in North Philly, they lived in West Philly, spending her formidable years in the City of Brotherly Love, which she calls “a very special place.”
“I think it is a place where though certainly challenging for people who don’t have a lot of means, it is a place that works to try to drive change in a positive way,” Matlock-Turner said of Philadelphia.
Quite fittingly, Matlock-Turner helps lead the charge in driving positive change across Philly, particularly for the city’s urban community.
Prior to her current role as President & CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition, Matlock-Turner worked at different agencies in cities across the U.S.
However, it’s always been clear to her the type of work she wanted to do.
“My real passion was always being a part of community, and being a community activist,” she said.
As a child, Matlock-Turner had experience as a Girl Scout, and also served on the usher board at White Rock Baptist Church.
In high school, she and a group of her peers put together their own club. She also ran for student government, and worked on the student newspaper.
“That same kind of energy carried over when I came back to the city and started working,” she added.
Upon her return, Matlock-Turner ran into a friend of hers, John F. White Jr., who was running for state representative, and asked her if she could work on his campaign. While unsuccessful in his first attempt, on the second try, White was elected as a state rep, and Matlock-Turner continued working on the legislative side of government.
In March 1999, Matlock-Turner was named the President & CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition, the fourth in the organization’s history, and the first woman to hold the title.
“Women haven't always been as seriously considered for leadership roles as we should, and this iconic organization that I've known about almost since its founding, to ultimately be chosen to lead it was exciting, and also a little scary,” she said.
She credits mentors, such as former CEO Ernie Jones, and prominent women such as Marian Tasco and Gloria Guard for helping her navigate the new role and take on the responsibility.
Their influence has helped Matlock-Turner pay it forward.
“One of the things that I committed myself to doing when I became the president here at the coalition was to be a mentor to other women… especially for people of color,” she added.
“And I’m so excited to say that if you talk to people in the community, I think one of the things that they’ll say is that I always make time to connect and engage and really help people think about where they are and where they might want to go.”
The Urban Affairs Coalition features many programs and initiatives that help support and fulfill the coalition’s four main priorities.
The first priority is developing youth and young adults.
When the UAC was first formed, the idea was to make sure that there always remained an opportunity for the next generation to be better off than the previous.
To strengthen this mission, the UAC provides youth with access to safe havens, education and jobs.
Matlock-Turner said these opportunities are designed with “the idea that young people and youth need not only a little change in their pocket… but as importantly, the experience and connections to know that the world is a lot bigger than maybe what your neighborhood might look like.”
The second priority is building wealth in urban communities.
The UAC was originally founded as a reaction to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and as a way to address the civic unrest in the country at the time.
“Out of this work, we really felt that when we looked at what was important to our community, certainly social justice was critically important, but also really understanding the financial systems and how they might not be supporting the aspirations of the African American community,” said Matlock-Turner.
Today, the UAC fosters opportunities for economic success by providing financial education on things, such as how to start a business, how to get a loan to purchase a home, money saving strategies, finding jobs and more.
The third priority is forging strategic partnerships.
“The idea was always that we could do more together than we could separately,” said Matlock-Turner.
One such partnership is the Freedom Rings Partnership, which takes a cross-sector, collaborative, and focused approach towards improving computer literacy and interest access for disenfranchised and low-income Philadelphians. Another partnership they helped launch was the READ! By 4th campaign, which is a citywide approach to make sure young children could read on grade level by the time they entered the fourth grade.
The fourth priority is strengthening nonprofits.
The UAC is made up of more than 80 partners, filled with strong grassroots leaders who work toward sustainable change that reflect the concerns and visions of the communities.
“They really want to stay connected to their neighbors, their friends, to their community to really drive positive change,” said Matlock-Turner, referring to the many partners.
Throughout her 20 years with the coalition, Matlock-Turner said she’s proud of the fact that she gets to meet people and help connect them to opportunities that can help them fulfill their goals and aspirations.
“It’s the impact that we have,” she said. “We have now over 80 programs and projects that are a part of the coalition family. When I got here, there were about 20.”
“To me, it reinforces the idea that everybody can do something to change the world, whether it’s a volunteer, whether it’s creating your own organization, whether it’s partnering with someone else,” she added.
Matlock-Turner still gets excited to go to work everyday, and seeing the impact that the coalition has had on so many lives gives her tremendous hope.
With each initiative the UAC gets involved in, it always comes down to the community. The community is diverse, and for that reason, Matlock-Turner often points out the importance of building it.
“I think it’s important because we miss something,” she said. “There’s something that we don’t understand or something that we haven’t learned if you don’t talk with everybody.”
Throughout her career, Matlock-Turner has made sure to work with people from all backgrounds and learn from those people, and create partnerships and relationships that makes all parties involved better.
Conducive to the impact she’s helped make for so many people with her platform as president and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition, she never forgets who she is at the core.
“I’m just like a girl from West Philly who really very much cares about community,” she reflected.
As a piece of advice, she often tells others that they can have an impact on the world from wherever they are. There will be struggles along the way, however, the important thing is to never give up because it’s all a part of the learning process.
While she’s been honored and received numerous awards over the years, Matlock-Turner says the work always comes first.
“If people say anything about me, I hope they say that I did the right things for the right reasons, that I worked really hard and that I created opportunities for others to shine and to grow.”