Point of View by Diane Yentel: Remembering Shauna Sorrells

Shauna Sorrells, a dedicated member of NLIHC’s board of directors, a lifelong houser and a dear friend of mine, died suddenly this month at age 47. We will honor her with the Brooke Award at NLIHC’s 2020 Leadership Reception, for her successful efforts to house the lowest income people. In the meantime, I want to share these remarks that I wrote for Shauna’s memorial service.

Remembering Shauna

If Shauna were still with us, she’d be late to this event. She was late for almost every meeting, call, dinner, drinks - testifying at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill - whatever. She’d be late. We’d probably get a text from her right around now, saying she was looking for parking. And then, just before it was really too late, she’d walk in - and all would be forgiven. She’d walk in with a sheepish, charming, vibrant smile - that beautiful smile - and all would be forgiven. With her smile, her warmth, her brilliance, Shauna was always worth the wait.

Shauna was a member of NLIHC’s board of directors and served on its executive committee. She was also on the board of NAHRO, and she and I served together on the board of Homes for America. She was a remarkably active and effective housing advocate and practitioner. She brought to all of her work her wisdom, her expertise, her lived experience growing up in subsidized housing, and her deep commitment to the mission and the work of housing the lowest income people.

But long before I knew Shauna through our work together at NLIHC, I knew her first as my supervisor and then for almost 10 years as one of my dearest friends. We met at HUD, where she’d worked for many years and I’d just begun under the Obama Administration. She’d just received a promotion to head up the public housing office, I was a director of one of its divisions. We hit it off immediately - we were kindred spirits, mothers of sons (who also became best friends). As Shauna rose professionally, she always looked for opportunities to lift me up with her. I have that in common with so many others - women who were hired, promoted, mentored, connected through Shauna and her incredibly generous way of wanting to bring opportunity to everyone around her.

We were the lucky ones - because let’s be honest, Shauna could be tough. She suffered no fools. But generosity was her defining trait. Shauna was generous with her ideas, her warmth, her work, her mentoring, and especially in her friendships.

There was nothing Shauna wouldn’t do for a friend. When my mom died she was the first person at my door, with bags of dinner for everyone who would gather. When my younger son was born, she kept my older son with her and Isaiah - letting both of them stay up much too late playing video games. After that, sleepovers were always at my house. 

If you were lucky enough to call Shauna your friend - as so many of us were - you always had a steadfast supporter at your side, ready to encourage, help, vent, laugh or cry with. As a friend, Shauna had this remarkable ability to both fully accept and love you exactly as you are, and also to consistently and lovingly push you to be better, to be your best self. Of course in her view, our best selves drank plenty of wine, sometimes skipped workouts, and watched reality TV. There was no judgement from Shauna - ever. Just a gentle push to keep striving, together. And always there was laughter, joy and adventure.

Above all was her beloved son, Isaiah. Shauna loved Isaiah fiercely and entirely, and she was an amazing mom. I saw firsthand those same Shauna traits of generosity, loyalty, protection, warmth, fun and unconditional love that she brought to being Isaiah’s mom. Shauna was so deeply proud of Isaiah, so excited for all that lies ahead for him. I know her love still surrounds him.

Shauna was extraordinary, a brilliant, bright light. I miss her so much - I know many of you do too. But despite the pain and tremendous sadness of losing her, and so soon, what I’m left feeling most is profound gratitude. I am so fortunate to have known her, to have basked in her light, even if only for a short time. I am a better person for having loved and been loved by Shauna. We all are. Whether as family, friends, colleagues, or by being one of the millions of low income people whose lives were improved by her dedicated, brilliant work - each of our lives were made better for having known Shauna. In that way, her light still shines and she lives on, in all of us.

Remembering Shauna Sorrells