Jen Powley

Author of Just Jen: Thriving Through Multiple Sclerosis and Dal alumnus

A master’s graduate from Dal’s School of Planning, Jen Powley was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 15. By 35, she had lost the use of her arms and legs. Her memoir, Just Jen: Thriving Through Multiple Sclerosis, won the 2017 the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award—Non Fiction.

What does belonging mean to you?
Belonging means not feeling worried that people will accept me. I am in a wheelchair and need to tip back to take pressure off my butt. I worry that I look less than normal when I do that. Being accepted means I don’t need to worry about what people will think but can look as disabled as I am, and my comfort is more important to the people I am with than my physical appearance.

Why does belonging matter in today’s world?
I am president of Rainbow Refugee Association of Nova Scotia. I read the emails from LGBTQI+ people from around the world who are living in societies where they are not accepted for who they are. It is heart wrenching. It matters because everyone should be accepted for who they are.

When have you most felt like you belonged?
I most feel like I belong when I can make someone laugh, whether it be making my partner Tom smile or getting a stranger to laugh. Getting someone to laugh means that I have broken down any personal barriers and we are able to communicate on a more intimate level.

What is the single biggest threat to building a belonging society?
The simple answer is that the biggest threat to building a belonging society is attitudinal, but after reflecting on this, I would point to the fact that our society is built on competition, exploitation and fear. That is what forms the basis of capitalism. A lot of inclusion problems could be solved if people could afford to be more inclusive. My boyfriend lives in a basement apartment with stairs and a narrow doorway and, if it was financially feasible, there might be an elevator or lift. A person might be more welcoming of immigrants if they didn’t feel their livelihood was threatened. Because we live in a financially driven society, that factor is a real consideration.

What one change could we make as a society to improve belonging?
I think eliminating the costs of university and post-secondary programs would allow people to see that it is not intellectual ability that confines people in the multiple restraints that so many people have to live with. There are people who are childcare workers rather than teachers not because they are less able to run a classroom, but because they cannot afford a four-year university degree.

What one thing can each of us do, right now, to foster belonging?
I think everyone can be more accepting to other people, and realize they are in the situation they are in not because of their value, but because of the barriers that society imposes, either financially or physically.