March 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Upon moving to Omaha in 2010, little suggested Tunette Powell would take the city by storm. She was weighted down by a heavy past and an uncertain future in a new city. But then this dynamo found her calling, and with it the vehicle to use her life to impact others as a motivational speaker, author, blogger, educator, and national commentator.

All before age 29.

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None of it happened yet when she and her husband, Jason, came here from her native Texas for his U.S. Air Force service. She was a first-time mom expecting again. Separated from family and friends and having left her job at the San Antonio Express, the couple suffered financial woes. She also harbored that deep well of hurt. She didn’t know her next step.

“Stripped of everything” and “feeling the most alone I ever felt in my life,” Powell says prayer led her on her current path. Tapping a lifelong expressive flair, she studied speech communication at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, for whom she became an award-winning forensics competitor.

The speech that won her a national oratory title argued against the criminalization of addiction by using her addict father, with whom she’s mended her relationship, as a case study. Their personal story of healing and transformation became her first book, The Other Woman.

The book made her an in-demand inspirational speaker. For her 2013 TEDxOmaha talk she described how, though her father was in and out of prison, “he still had a huge positive influence on my life,” adding, “Three times in my life he was the person that kept me going with words of wisdom. I wanted people to really take the message that no matter what negative situations we’ve been through, there’s a lesson.”

She now mentors TEDx speakers and other presenters. She’s expanding her own speaking base as she finds her messages resonate widely.

“I’ve learned not to put myself in a box. I’m finding I have something to offer people from all sectors. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are or how poor you are or what you have and don’t have. At the core of it we’re motivated by and get inspired by many of the same things.”

Public speaking for her is more than a gig.

“Every time I get up on stage it’s talking to the kid in me, telling that little girl, ‘You’ve got it, you can keep going.’ It’s a piece of healing for me. I put a lot into it. Every time I leave that stage there’s nothing else left. I just release everything.”

Her appearance on an Oprah show about fatherless daughters led her to write her second book, From Daddyless to Destiny.

“In every chapter are exercises that feed into this same idea that you have to tell your story, let it go and create a new story,” she says. “When a father’s in a healthy spot and a daughter’s in a healthy place, all they need is a little remediation and a lot of forgiveness.”

She and her mother formed The Truth Heals to target fatherless girls and women with a curriculum-based, therapist-designed program. She works with clients at the Urban League of Nebraska, Omaha North High, Girls Inc. Omaha Street School, and Youth Emergency Services.

Her Momaha blog is another forum. Posts she wrote about her two young boys’ suspension from preschool (she’s now expecting a third child), the disproportionate number of black male preschoolers suspended nationwide, and the preschool-to-prison pipeline caught CNN’s attention.

“They had been looking for a champion to talk about the issue,” says Powell, who did a guest appearance on CNN Tonight. Then The Washington Post saw the CNN segment and asked me to write something. And that’s when it all blew up.”

The story went viral. Media contacted her for interviews. She became a sought-after expert. Parents sounded her out for answers.

“Many parents with students who are having these issues have reached out to me to ask, ‘What can we do?’ But it’s not a quick fix.”

She says parents must do as she does and participate in their child’s school to give themselves a voice in being part of the change.

“We can’t complain about the way things are if we’re not willing to do the work.”

CNN’s since made her a go-to panelist to discuss trending stories. She addressed Michael Brown’s killing and the Ferguson (Mo.) protests in a televised town hall.

Most recently, she co-led a social media push seeking the resignation of Pat McPherson, the Nebraska State Board of Education member whose blog, the Objective Conservative, was discovered to host multiple posts (McPherson claimed that they were authored not by him but by a co-contributor) dating back to 2011 that used the slur “half breed” in reference to President
Barack Obama.

Much has come at her in a short time.

“It’s been good and crazy. A lot of love, some hate. I had a lot of people wishing death on me and prison on my children.”

Powell, who also coordinates the Metro Omaha Tobacco Action Coalition, is happy to have arrived at the spot she’s in.

“I feel like I’m in the right space right now and I’ve gotten so much confirmation that all I have to keep on doing is just tell my story.”

She’s spurned the big-time speakers circuit rather than let national agents promote her as something she’s not. Remaining authentic is paramount to her.

“It’s important I stay very true to who I am,” she says. “I have to remember where I started. I never sought this—it found me. I want to stay true to the mission and purpose that, even though I speak for a fee, there is ministry behind it.”

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