Finding Her Voice

A personal story of addiction takes Tunette Powell to a national championship

When she dreamed of rap stardom back in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, Tunette Powell went by Short Stack. Today, Tunette will do. After years of search and struggle and a need for attention she fed with men, the 26-year-old Bellevue Neb. resident is more comfortable than she's ever been in her own skin and with her real identity.

Recently married and the mother of two young children, Powell was not feeling Nebraska, where her military husband got stationed. Even though she did well in school, she counted the days at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Then came her catharsis. In early 2011 she was on a three-way call with her brother and recovering addict father when she hung up, broke down crying and started writing.

Words flowed as if some Higher Power were moving her hand. An experienced journalist and blogger, it wasn't unusual for Powell to get in a zone writing or even to tackle difficult subject matter, but this was different. What poured out of her was intensely personal. For the first she found herself telling in detail her story of being a crack addict's daughter. She relived emotional pain she'd largely stuffed from early childhood on – of her father's repeated relapses and arrests.

"With each of his relapses I'd get hurt all over again," she says.

Over the next year or so she kept working on her story, which is also her father's story, and it evolved into a full-scale memoir. She ended up interviewing her father, mother and grandmother, who all reside in Texas, to fill in the gaps. When the Speech Communication major was recruited onto the UNO forensics team in mid-2011, she borrowed from her memoir to write a persuasive speech critiquing the criminalization of addiction and advocating for substance abuse rehabilitation.

"Now is the time to separate the war on drugs from the war on addiction. Today you’ve heard the problems, impacts and solutions of criminalizing addictions. Bruce Callis is 50 years old now. And he is still struggling with his addiction. While you all are sitting out there listening to this, I’m living it. Bruce Callis is my father and for my entire life, I have watched our misguided system destroy him."

She brought a searing passion and gritty street savvy to the staid format that set her apart. It made her feel out of place but it also made competitors and judges take notice. Last April she became UNO's first forensics national champion when she won for her "It's Not the Addict, it's the Drug: Redefining America's War on Drugs" presentation at America's oldest speech competition on the campus of Emerson College in Boston. She beat out competitors with years more experience than her.

Now her new memoir, The Other Woman, whose title borrows her father's term for his drug of choice, has been published by WriteLife.com. She's also a blogger with the Omaha World-Herald social networking site for moms, Momaha, a program director with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Midlands and a sought-after motivational speaker, which she hopes to make her life's work.

None of it seemed possible five years ago. Her mindset then was expressed in a rap she wrote about her father that featured the rhyme, "It's gotta be a nightmare, it's gotta be a dream." But she was still acting out, still afraid to face the truth of what she carried inside.

"Five years ago I wasn't with my husband yet. I was hanging with people that were OK with me just being where I was, kind of in a slump. I was in a relationship with someone that was already in a relationship. I was working at the San Antonio Express as an editorial assistant.

"Then I went two years to the University of Missouri. But college was nothing to me.  I never went to class, I just threw it all away. I was forced to move back to San Antonio. I enrolled in a community college but I never went."

It wasn't until she landed in the metro and reluctantly started at UNO she began to find herself again.

"I told myself I wasn't going to be the student that stood out, I wasn't going to be the student that got involved in anything, I was just going to fly under the radar and get my degree."

Instead, she became a star by making the Dean's List, winning that prestigious national title and being named Most Outstanding Speech Student.

UNO instructors encouraged the same potential they saw in her that high school teachers and San Antonio Express colleagues noticed earlier. She wrote obits, features and a blog for the paper while still in her teens. Then she lost her way. Though she settled down after marrying and having kids, the confidence and joy she once had was gone. Then she unexpectedly tapped something inside her.

"When I moved here I felt the most alone I ever felt in my life. I didn't want to come to Omaha, I didn't want to go to UNO. But I decided to just enroll, and it changed my life. Academically, I found I'm a lot smarter than I thought I was. I didn't know I loved learning. I didn't know there's so much passion in me. And I learned I'm a survivor. I thought I was always a very weak person. But I've had to go through so many things. Being molested as a kid. Having two 'C' sections. Financial struggles."

Not to mention the havoc her dad caused. He was behind bars most of her formative years. When he went on binges to get his fix he'd disappear for days at a time. One Christmas he sold all the presents under the tree so he could get high. She played caregiver and enabler to him. She endured it all.

"I didn't see that I just kept getting back up. I'm a lot stronger then I gave myself credit for."

UNO's Rita Shaughnessy and Abbie Syrek pushed and nurtured her when she didn't trust herself.

"I did see the talent in Tunette and in chatting with her I discovered that what she really wanted to be was a motivational speaker. My advice to her was to become a Speech Communication major, and if she wanted to someday go out there on the speaker circuit, she needed to author a book. She's done both of those things and more. She's doing everything right," says Shaughnessy, who teaches Public Speaking Fundamentals.

"Tunette is a dynamo. She's intelligent and industrious and passionate and driven, but add poetic to that and you've got something very special. I knew it when she gave her first speech. She's using all that's happened to her in her life to shed light on serious matters, and others will benefit. It doesn't get much better than that."

Forensics coach Abbie Syrek says, "When I first saw her speak, my jaw dropped.

She was spectacular. My soul was so moved that I thought, I have to have this woman on the forensics team. So I approached her after class and she told me she was a senior who was married with two young kids. If there are three strikes against recruiting a student those are the three. I thought, Well, she'll be the one that got away…'

"I told my husband if I had her four years she would be a national champion. But Tunette didn't need four years, she only needed eight months. It's all heart and hard work."

And a rare talent.

"She wrote by far the best first draft I've ever read from any of my students. She has such a natural grasp for writing. I hear thousands of speeches a year and there are very few that stick with you or that can stir your soul," says Syrek, who convinced Powell to join the team.

Powell's expressive presentation style lends added power to her message.

"It's poetic, it has a cadence to it, it has emotion to it," says Syrek. "There's something about the way she looks at you that brings you in and captivates you. I watch speeches for a living and I might go as far as to say Tunette Powell could very well be the most naturally gifted speaker I've ever seen, and I mean it."

That she possessed such a powerful gift surprised Powell, who says, "I didn't know I had that." She's grateful others recognized that ability in her, saying. "I needed somebody to believe in me just a little bit."

To climb as high as she did in so short a time as a public speaker is even more impressive given where she started.

"I was intimidated," she says. "Forensics is a different world. Predominantly white. Even the other black people spoke the same way the white people did. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and I didn't think I could be successful because of that. My voice is a little raspy when I speak loud and my topic was different and the way it was written was different."

The way she dressed was different too. She wore casual, thrown-together worn clothes in contrast to her speaking peers' expensive new outfits.

Syrek says Powell struggled learning the conventions of forensics but after assuring her her self-doubts were misplaced, the novice began excelling.

"I had to stand certain ways and do certain things. It was so much for me, it was the most challenging thing ever. I wanted to quit after my first tournament. But my coaches just kept telling me, 'You need to continue because you're going to change the program,' which I took to mean that God placed me here to open the minds of people. I learned I really shouldn't put myself in a box."

As Powell advanced through state and national competitions Syrek says something unheard of happened: competitors gave the newcomer standing ovations that undoubtedly influenced judges. Syrek say's this knack for engaging and touching audiences stems in part from the conviction with which she speaks.

"She made her father's story matter to everybody and a lot of that was in the writing, in the way she set it up. It was very dramatic. And she was writing from life experience."

Drawing on her own past, Powell taps personal feelings and incidents that deeply resonate with others.

"When I think about what I've been through I can reach people that others who haven't been through the same thing can't."

Writing's become her creative and therapeutic outlet.

"It's in everything I do. I just bleed writing, I can’t explain it. I feel it's so healing, it's medicine to me, it's done so much for me, it keeps me going."

She hardly believes what's happened since last April. Winning the speech competition. Graduating UNO. Hired to write her Momaha blog. Getting her memoir published. Taking the job with the Omaha Boys and Girls Clubs.

"It's huge."

Along the way, she's discovered what she wants to do with the rest of her life – motivational speaking. "That's what I'm going to do, that's my calling – writing and speaking. It comes to me very easily. It's a burdensome joy, it takes everything out of me, but once I'm done I need to do it again. My body replenishes itself and the thoughts come."

She sees a through-line from her writing to her Christian faith.

"The book was the most spiritual thing I've ever done. I kid you not, it was one of these things where if I didn't pray I couldn't write. When I turned 22 I rededicated my life back to Christ. I started doing the right things. Like my dad wakes up every day and he has to choose to do the right thing, I have to wake up and choose to do the right thing. I'm a high self-monitor because I have to be. If I see myself looking for certain things or acting a certain way I pull myself back."

She says it took the crucible of writing her book and finding her voice before "I finally started to see this is my purpose in life." Her father, who's on parole and strung together five months of sobriety until a New Year's relapse, is her biggest supporter. "He always reminds me, 'You're a born storyteller, you have to do this.' I think that's what kept me going."

He works in a culinary program and eyes opening his own bakery one day. Tunette wants to help him achieve it. Despite everything he did to her and the family, she loves him.

"Me and my dad, we've got the closest relationship. I speak to my dad every day. It's been heartbreaking for me because I am so close to him, so even when he had his recent relapse I was the one calling my grandma every hour to see if he came in, I was the one on the phone with his girlfriend, listening to her as she talked about how she's tired of my dad and all this.

"I'm trying to still be there for my family and not show that I'm so hurt. I love my dad so much, but I'm the one who could be hurt the most because I'm the one who's put so much in."

As she worked on her book her father fleshed out things she didn't know before, including just how unfaithful he was to her mother in the throes of his using. "It was so hard to hear that part," she says.

"There's some scenes in the book I couldn't have written without him because I was not there and he allowed me to interview him, so I played reporter."

She says she was saddened to learn his father and step-father were both raging alcoholics. She suspects some of what she had him dredge up and some of what she's written about will sadden him, but in the end, she says, "I think he's grown from this process. I could see him healing. I think when he reads the book it will make him really strong."

Just as it's brought her healing and strength. She can hardly believe where she's come to. Things looked so bleak only a few years ago and now she's on her way.

"My favorite quotation is, 'Attitude is the thing that can change the color of any room.' I mean, that's just what I live by."

She envisions a time, not long from now, when she and her father will present together.

"I think of my dad as a poor man's Aristotle. Anything I need – a bible verse, a quote, a statistic – I’ll call my dad and he's got it. He has so much knowledge, he has so much to give the world. God let him go through so much so he'll be able to reach people others can't reach. He can really get on people's level and really talk to them. He says he knows his calling is teaching."

Her father even provided the tag line that ends her award-winning speech:

"The irony here is that we live in a society where we are told to recycle. We recycle paper, aluminum, and old electronics. But why don’t we ever consider recycling the most precious thing on earth – the human life."

There's a book release party for Powell's memoir The Other Woman on Saturday, from 6 to 8 p.m., at the UNO Art Gallery in the Weber Fine Arts building.

Visit Powell's website at http://www.tunettepowell.com. Her Momaha blog can be found at http://www.omaha.com/section/moms. Her book is available wherever books are sold.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

posted at 08:22 pm
on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

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