Debra Powell-Wright - Living History Through Spoken Word

Debra Powell-Wright will perform at an historic commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.

By Galen Newsum
Marketing and Public Relations Intern

An historic weekend of remembrance will begin in Selma, Alabama, starting on March 5. People will come from all over the country to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.  

Front and center among the commemorators will be Temple University Ambler’s own Debra Powell-Wright.

“Being there means being a part of the conversation, the history, and being in the presence of people who are social change activists,” said Powell-Wright, Administrative Assistant in the Office of Admissions at Temple University Ambler. “I am so honored to be able to stand among those people — one, a 103 year old woman who actually walked in the march, and recently got to go to the President's State of the Union Address with Congressman John Lewis.”

Powell-Wright calls the much anticipated experience “firsthand history.”

“I have been told that President Obama is going to be there.  Reverend (Jesse) Jackson is expected to be there; actor and activist Danny Glover will be in attendance; so many people who have impacted the life we have today,” she said.

Powell-Wright and her group the “For Women Collective” were invited to perform by a friend and former colleague, Tarana Burke, who worked as a production consultant for the film Selma. While she is excited about the performance, she said that is not what she is looking forward to most. 

“The best thing will be just being there,” she said. “Anything can happen and I’m honored just to have been asked.”

This is by no means Powell-Wright’s first time performing. Poetry and spoken word have been a passion of hers for a very long time, she said.

“About a week after my mother passed away, I went to a mural dedication honoring Sonia Sanchez, former Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Temple University. She said at that celebration ‘poetry will wait for you,’” Powell-Wright said. “After hearing Professor Sanchez speak, a poem popped into my head that I began to chant to myself over and over again as part of my healing process.”

Powell-Wright said her art continues to be “a personal journey.”

“Poetry can be a philosophical or spiritual testimony to others, and has a huge potential help to you sort out things in your own life,” she said.

Not only does Powell-Wright use her art and talent as part of her own healing process, she encourages others to use their talents in the same way.

“In 2011, I received a grant to do a collection of short stories and poems that talked about stereotypes around images of African American. The idea was to give other women the opportunity to be published in something that could be meaningful and important,” she said. “I asked them to write fictionalized versions of their own truths. The stories come from all over the world and cover issues of love and struggle within a variety of relationships.”

Not long after the collection was published, Powell-Wright said, she had a revelation. 

“We had a reading in February 2013 — some sang Nina Simone songs — and the idea came to me that we could perform!” she said. “The talent in the group is truly amazing.”

Most everyone gets stage fright the first time they perform, but Powell-Wright has taught herself several techniques over the years to get ready for the stage.

 “Oh yeah, I still get nervous! But the best technique is to take a deep breath and calm yourself,” she said. “The nerves don’t go away completely.  I’ve heard my voice quiver, but that may just be because of the power of the words I’m saying, not because of the audience.”

Powell-Wright recalled a particular performance that really struck a chord within her. 

“My most memorable experience would have to be my last one. It was in December 2014 at the IDEA Performing Arts Center.  It was only a small audience, but at the end a woman came up to me, hugged me and said ‘thank you” she recalled.  “Something about our group just resonated with her. She had a child with her who had drawn a picture of me on a piece of paper and wanted me to have it — it was a very poignant moment.”

Powell-Wright said she takes her inspiration from several sources that have impacted her throughout her life.  

“It’s hard to say who my biggest inspiration would be. Nina Simone.  Sonia Sanchez. They have both been fearless and spoke their minds through poetry and music,” she said. “And of course, I have to say that my mother is also a big part of who I am.”