Celebrating Wake County's Black Leaders

Portrait of Lorena McDowell


A native Minnesotan, McDowell began her work as a community advocate in the early 2000s, helping to serve in winter shelters and soup kitchens. Having come from a less privileged background and experiencing homelessness as a youth, Lorena has dedicated her life’s work to ensuring that families across the nation have safe, affordable places to call home.

In late 2018, McDowell came to Wake County to raise and lead the County’s new Department of Housing Affordability & Community Revitalization. In this role, she and her team are responsible for efforts across the spectrum of affordable housing. From running the largest men’s shelter in North Carolina, to multimillion-dollar investments in affordable housing development and much more in between.

Before coming to Wake County, McDowell served as Vice President of Programs for Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS). The largest human service agency in Northern Virginia, NVFS works to empower Northern Virginians to achieve self-sufficiency through a multitude of resources and services. There, she worked to de-silo programs, create more robust services and improve agency outcomes.

In Atlanta, McDowell served as the Homelessness Continuum of Care lead. Working under then Mayor Kasim Reed as a Deputy Director, she was responsible for revamping Atlanta’s homelessness response system as well as managing, planning and/or advising on all federal, state and local funding dedicated to providing housing and supportive services for residents experiencing homelessness in the city of Atlanta.

In addition to her government and nonprofit leadership roles, McDowell has consulted nationally as the Principle Consultant for Balance Community Solutions – a firm dedicated to helping government and nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, best practice program development and financial stability.


What do you see as your greatest accomplishment as an African American leader?
My greatest accomplishment is simply leading by example. I do not come from a privileged background. There was no silver spoon and certainly not an easy path forward. I simply had the courage to insert myself into often unwelcoming spaces, to seize every opportunity that became available to me, and to outwork everyone when given the chance.

The ability to do this is not unique to me and I make every effort to ensure that youth and young adults of color know that they can do the same. 

What is your “secret sauce," or the leadership principles that have most contributed to your success?
Passion, purpose and perseverance.

How do you continue to grow and develop as a leader, and what are the keys to developing the next generation of leaders in government?
Each of us does this work because we connect to it in at least some small way. I have never forgotten where I started, and I am blessed to do what I am passionate about every single day. It is that passion drives me to do more and compels me to be a lifelong student of my field.

To continuously grow and develop, you can never stop learning. To learn, you must first accept that you are not the foremost authority on any one subject and be willing to learn from those around you, regardless of rank or scholarly accomplishments. I make a conscious effort to learn from my team every day and, in the process, I try to learn what drives them as well.

Public service is just that. Service. That said, I believe that Leaders of Government should be community servants first. The key to developing the next generation is to help them to connect with their passion and to teach them to use that passion as fuel to drive them forward, in service of their community.

With the benefit of hindsight, what advice would you give your 13-year-old self?
You are stronger than you know and an absolute force to be reckoned with. Own it. Know that you belong at any table that you have worked to gain access to. Hold that space and make certain that they remember you when you’re done.

What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
"Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates.