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Remembering independent living champion Jen Powley, 1978-2023

"Independent living is about having choices, making decisions, taking risks, making mistakes, and taking responsibility.” - Jen Powley.
A thin white woman wearing a pink sleeveless shirt sits in a motorized wheelchair, smiling at the camera with her hands clasped in her lap.

Posted: September 22, 2023

By: Emily MacKinnon

Photos: Nicola Davison (Snickerdoodle Photography).

Jen Powley (MPlan’09, MFA’15), activist, writer and tireless champion for people living with disabilities, has died. She was 45.

Ask anyone with even a passing knowledge of Powley, and some version of these three words will come up: “hilarious,” “intelligent,” and “fearless.” She was a steadfast advocate for young people with disabilities, advancing conversations about their right to live in dignified housing within their own communities as opposed to the institutions and nursing homes where they are so often “warehoused.” She started this petition calling on the Nova Scotia government to build more homes for people living with severe physical disabilities. “As is stated in Access by Design 2030, the goal is to have a fully accessible province by 2030,” Powley said at the time. “I thought starting with one building was a good idea.”

She firmly and fairly held decision-makers to account and would always follow up if someone promised her they'd “look into” something. She was unapologetic about demanding change, and she pushed people to make and keep their promises to do better.

Powley held a Master of Urban Planning from Dalhousie, along with a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Dal and King’s. She was the author of two books, Just Jen: Thriving Through Multiple Sclerosis (Roseway, 2017) and Making a Home: Assisted Living in the Community for Young Disabled People (Roseway 2023), as well as countless articles for websites, newspapers and magazines.

A thin white woman sits reclined in a motorized wheelchair, smiling broadly at something off camera. A white man kneels beside her, smiling warmly, and holds a black microphone in front of her. A woman with grey hair and a second microphone stands in the background. Powley at the launch party for her first book, Just Jen, in 2017. Her fiance, Tom, holds the microphone. (Nicola Davison photo.)

“The world has lost an articulate and generous activist,” says Dr. Lorri Neilsen Glenn, who was Jen’s mentor in the Dal-King’s MFA program. “[She was] a woman whose remarkable strength kept everyone in awe.”

Powley ran for Halifax regional council (District 7) in 2020. She worked with Rainbow Refugee Network, the Nova Scotia League for Equal Opportunities and the Ecology Action Centre among many other non-profits. In 2019 she received the James McGregor Stewart Award for her leadership and advocacy within the disabled community. The thread that connected all this community work was her unflagging commitment to raising the voices of those who are often voiceless.

Alum Paul MacKinnon (MBA’96) is CEO of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission. He worked with Powley on Our HRM Alliance. “I learned so much from Jen Powley, who was a great planner, author, advocate, and all around great person,” MacKinnon said, calling her “a powerhouse.” He last saw her just a month ago. “[I] will miss seeing her around.”

Powley didn’t just excel socially. Her former Dal professor, Howard Epstein, remembers Powley as an excellent student. “The course I taught was Planning Law and I had planning students and law students,” he recalls. “And Jen got the highest grade of all the students, planning and law. She was so clever.”

It takes a large amount of skill and fortitude to be so many things to so many people. Powley leaves behind a powerful legacy of her persuasive writing, disarming wit and an open invitation for folks to join the conversation about dignified accessibility — and then make meaningful change.