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For This Columbia Activist, Life In Pandemic Hasn't Slowed Down

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Rene Powell is walking towards a tiny wooden bench, to take a seat outside her new home. She says she remembers the feeling she first had a year ago that the pandemic was going to be a long haul.

“I knew it just because, you know, my long-term experience, like, I just had a familiarity with it that not everyone has,” Powell said. “An intimacy almost.

Rene Powell is a local activist for disability rights, women’s reproductive rights, voting rights, and much more. At a time where most people’s lives feel at a standstill, her life as an activist and a person with a disability has only become more active. 

And unlike most Columbia, Missourians, the pandemic hasn’t stopped Powell from making an impact in both the community and people’s lives. 

Powell says because she has long-term experience dealing with a disability, she knew there was no quick way to solving this sudden global health crisis.

Powell was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 14 years old. One afternoon, she was getting ready to run track at school, when she had her first seizure. Since then, she’s had many moments of uncertainty.

“One thing when you're dealing with the brain that I had to learn early on is that it's very, very mysterious,” Powell said. “And for me, that was at first very frustrating. But then I got comfortable with it.”

At age 26, Powell underwent surgery to remove a part of the brain - in the right temporal lobe - that caused her to have frequent seizures. After years of ups and downs with seizures, at age 30, Powell discovered something about herself: She was becoming a political activist.

“Disability issues are inherently political,” Powell said. “And we're always having to fight for our rights and for policies, and having to defend our policies.” 

Credit Xcaret Nunez / KBIA
Rene Powell speaks about her experiences with local activism over the years in Columbia, Mo.

Sitting outside her new home today, Powell remembers her previous home of 17 years - Columbia’s Paquin Tower. She met a disenfranchised resident and felt she had to do something. Powell was later appointed to the Governor’s Council on Disability. She also went on to join the League of Women Voters, reproductive rights activists, racial justice groups, and the list goes on.

Chimene Schwach, a close friend of Powell’s, said her friendship with Powell has been an eye-opening experience.

“It's good to have a voice like that on policy because she's not advocating for herself,” Schwach said. “She's also advocating for everybody experiencing problems.”

Schwach recently helped Powell move to a new house after she qualified for a Section 8 housing voucher. 

“I stood there, and I said, ‘if I wasn't here to assist you, how are you going to move?’” Schwach said. “And she was like, ‘Oh, I would just take like one thing over at a time on the bus.’”

Powell can not legally drive because of her epilepsy. For most of her adult life, she has depended on public transportation to get around town. But just like most people do when their ride isn’t working, she worked to fix it. So, she joined the City of Columbia’s Public Transit Advisory Commission and the Disabilities Commission. 

Powell also met Jill McClintock, a close friend and the Education and Training Coordinator for Services for Independent Living. McClintock said she first met Powell at SIL when she was on her own journey to living independently.

“I don't really think that Rene probably even knows the extent to which the impact that she's had on me,” McClintock said. 

“The whole concept of disability pride before I met Rene was boring to me,” McClintock said. “I really was not believing in my heart, a lot of what I was saying, it was just kind of lip service.” 

Powell has helped her become comfortable with her own disability, McClintock said. For the past 14 years, she’s asked Powell to help her deliver disability awareness presentations throughout the community.

But back on that tiny bench outside Powell’s new house, the afternoon sun is now setting – because with her usual generosity, she’s allowed this reporter to take up hours of her time. It’s obvious Rene Powell is an activist, but she’s also a friend, and she makes an impact on the lives she touches.

Xcaret Nuñez studies radio/television journalism and religious studies at the University of Missouri — Columbia.
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