Celebrating the leader I want to emulate

July 1, 2020

Dear Changemakers,

I write today to celebrate a leader whose inspiration we need now, more than ever. If you are not a close student of housing, discrimination, place-conscious policy, and economic mobility, you may not have come across Margery Austin Turner. But as leaders and institutions reckon with the persistent racism and inequities within our work and culture, Marge is as fine a role model as one could imagine. 

I want to be like Marge, not because she always gets everything right—although she is right more often than the rest of us—but because she is the epitome of curiosity, always eager to learn, always willing to question and be questioned, always open to change. 

When I arrived at Urban in 2012, filled with new ideas and challenges, to the place she had called her professional home for 30 years, Marge might have focused on explaining to me why change is hard.  Instead, she rolled up her sleeves to explore whether we could do things differently, fighting to protect and preserve core values—unthreatened by disruption and reinvention. I know of no other person who has committed themselves so wholly over a lifetime to an institution yet is always in search of its improvement and eager to learn how she can improve herself in the process. Marge is never afraid to ask where we have fallen short or to dig into how we can do better.

As our country grapples with persistent racial injustices, my colleagues of color at Urban remind us how our efforts have fallen short, taken too long, and have suffered because of insufficient attention or resources or a bolder vision. On my watch, we have not seen adequate progress. Too often, I find my first instinct is to be defensive, explaining the difficulty, detailing competing pressures. In the period ahead, my biggest challenge is to adopt the spirit of Marge Turner: be grateful for the opportunity to imagine greater possibilities consistent with the core values of this institution—to its betterment—and roll up my sleeves to offer a coherent plan for how, together, we can bring more of those possibilities to life.

Marge’s research career showed the same inventive spirit. Marge helped pioneer paired testing, developing a body of work that, over decades, has measured the ongoing persistence of housing market discrimination against people of color, same-sex couples and transgender people, people with disabilities, families, and renters using housing vouchers. Most recently, she spearheaded a new institutional strategy for Urban’s Next50, showing more researchers the value of engaging directly with changemakers across the country, of getting closer to the communities we study, and of focusing not just on describing disparities but also on unearthing the systems and structures that sustain racism.

This week, Marge stepped down as Urban’s senior vice president for program planning and management. She served in that role for more than a decade, teaming with two of the institute’s presidents and the other senior vice presidents, after leading our Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center for as many years. She is not retiring—not Marge—but instead launching her next chapter as an Urban Institute fellow, pursuing a renewed research agenda of her own while mentoring others. And true to form, when she returns from vacation in July, she starts training in R, the programming language, updating skills she first learned when she started her career as a research programmer at Urban in 1977. 

It has been a professional and personal highlight to work with Marge. I will miss working with her every day.

I hope there is someone like Marge in your life who inspires you to be open to change and comfortable with being uncomfortable. If so, please tell me about them and what I can learn from their example.

Warmly,

Sarah