Shonterria Charleston: “the mission of creating communities of safe and affordable housing for families…keeps me here.”

Shonterria Charleston brings to her work both a military sense of duty to get the job done and dedication to serve those in need.

Charleston has relied on both instincts during her 21 year career at the Housing Assistance Council, a national organization that helps build homes and communities across rural America. 

Charleston and her colleagues work with organizations in rural communities across the United States to help ensure that they have the funding, technical knowledge, training and information they need. 

Charleston arrived at HAC fresh from the U.S. Army.  She and her husband, both in the military at the time, decided to leave the service after having their daughter. Her military experience has given her insight into housing issues facing veterans as she works on HAC’s Affordable Housing for Rural Veterans initiative. 

Charleston was raised in Atlanta. Growing up, she experienced the stress of housing and food insecurities. Her mother worked hard cleaning at a hospital and hotel, an experience she’s often reminded of in the families HAC serves. 

“I did grow up in poverty, and it’s something I think about when I see families, children, mothers struggling. It always stays with me. From the very beginning, that’s played a very big part in who I am and how I choose to work and live.”

Her work at HAC showed her that those issues were just as prominent in rural places. 

“When I see families living at or near poverty, I think what must the children be going through and how are these experiences shaping these children as they will live in their adult lives.” 

The need for safe housing and issues such as crowded living and homlessness came into even sharper focus for Charleston as the country retreated to their homes in the COVID-19 pandemic. She was able to quickly set up an office at home, a luxury she knows is not the case for all. 

“When someone says shelter in place – that assumes you have suitable shelter with all of the necessary amenities,” she said. “If you are affected by COVID or have some symptoms, how do you appropriately shelter in place while ensuring the safety of your family members if you live in a three room or four-room house or apartment?” she said. 

Following the death of George Floyd, HAC has looked inward at its own policies and outward at the disparities among the groups it serves.

“We are taking a more conscious approach of how we run our programs and where we invest our time, talent, and resources,” she said.

Charleston is inspired by the resilience she sees in rural communities. Time and time again, she said, 

“That resiliency is something I haven’t seen in many other settings – whether urban or the military – I don’t know too many people who would see such bleak outlooks or situations and they would just keep driving, hitting their heads against the wall until something breaks open and produces good. The resiliency is something that always strikes me.”

Listen to Shonterria talk about what encourages her in her work and read the full Q&A below:

Describe your connection to rural America.

For the past 21 years, I’ve been working for the Housing Assistance Council (HAC); a national, nonprofit intermediary organization, whose mission and main focus has been to improve housing conditions for the rural poor, with an emphasis on the poorest of the poor in the most rural places. And while not from a rural place (I was born and raised in Atlanta), the idea of service to those less fortunate is something that runs deep within the core values of how I was raised.

Tell us about a moment when you felt discouraged and how you overcame it.

In my professional life, I cannot recall a single moment where I’ve felt discouraged. I live and operate on the belief that you never stop working and you never give up hope…because in the end, it’s shared effort, clear vision, and collaborative work towards a common goal of enriching the lives and communities of those less fortunate that will prevail. It must prevail, right…good always prevails. Or that is my belief and hope.”

On the flipside of that question, what encourages you in your work?

Wow…that’s a great question. I really appreciate that question. So many times, we start to operate on auto pilot and totally set aside the thing or the things that drive us. I am encouraged by so many things in choosing to do the work that I do. I am an Army veteran so in most everything I do; it is the duty of doing what is necessary and required that drives me. But if I am transparent…and I am about to show my vulnerability here… I grew up in poverty, (with housing and food insecurity) and so it’s so many things but mainly it is having been raised by a single mother with the help of her family that worked two jobs (day and night) to provide for my sister and I. It’s the recalled images of seeing my mother, tired and weary, but refusing to ever give in or give up hope. Fate brought me to HAC from the military, but it is the mission of creating communities of safe and affordable housing for families that keeps me here.

Is there a habit or practice you subscribe to that keeps you motivated?

I wouldn’t necessarily call it a practice; I’m not so sophisticated. I’m very simplistic in just never giving in or giving up hope.

What are you reading/listening to?

I often multi-listen/read, which is something I am trying to stop doing. I have two books right now that I am just starting to juggle, the first, Biased written by Jennifer L. Eberhardt. Biased is a book about hidden prejudices that shape what we see, think, and. The second, The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein, which is about how the the government segregated America. Both readings driven by the repeated tragedies over the last several months.

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