Before she knew the job was open, Kristina M.J. Powell imagined herself as executive director of The Telling Room, the nonprofit writing and literary arts center in downtown Portland. She considered it her “dream job,” and while working on her MBA from Purdue University Global this year, she created a presentation that included a plan for achieving that goal.

Two months after she studied the work of The Telling Room in her research, the position of executive director was posted. In September, Powell got the job.

“I’ve always admired their work so much and been drawn to the mission of organization – because of the stories that are told here, because of the voices, and also because of diversity and equity and being a woman of color,” said Powell, a 2006 graduate of Bowdoin College who majored in anthropology and minored in sociology, or as she likes to say, “lots of people studies. A big piece of being a good anthropologist is creating space for people to tell their stories and listening to their stories without interjecting yourself into what they are saying, and actually listening.”

Serving young writers ages 6 to 18, The Telling Room for 17 years has helped kids build confidence to tell their own stories, in many literary forms, and publishes those stories in anthologies and chapbooks for all to read. The core mission of the organization is creative empowerment of youth to help ensure success in the present and future. To break it down even more, The Telling Room helps kids find their identity.

Identity is the story of Kristina Powell’s life.

“I have always been fascinated by understanding people’s journeys of identity formation and how that changes, as well, and how painful and also joyful it can be,” said Powell, a transracial adoptee and a single mother raising a biracial son. “Creating space for that is part of what we do here at The Telling Room, as students put pen to paper to find their voice.”


Identity is complex. An American of Korean descent, Powell grew up in a diverse family in White Plains, New York. Her parents are white, she has a British grandmother, and “my aunts and cousins and spouses are either all of Asian background or they are Canadian. We are a funny international mix. … My family and I are very close. It’s been also normal to me to see that families are based on love and there are so many permutations. I was raised with that.”

Powell, who lives in Falmouth with her 9-year-old son, replaces Celine Kuhn, who was director for five years. Her position at The Telling Room will allow her to pursue personal and academic interests in identity and humanity in tandem with her career-long support of educational institutions and nonprofits focused on youth and enlightenment.

She has a big personality and a hearty laugh, and much of her success has involved sharing her enthusiasm with others. Prior to joining The Telling Room, Powell directed the annual Berwick Fund at Berwick Academy. In previous jobs, she worked as development manager at the Center for Grieving Children in Portland and with alumni and parents at Bates College, and began her career with the Council on International and Educational Exchange, the country’s oldest and largest nonprofit study-abroad and intercultural exchange organization, with offices in Portland.

Powell did a research project on The Telling Room for her MBA before the job of executive director opened. Derek Davis//Staff Photographer

Her interest in study-abroad programs stemmed from her experience at Bowdoin, when she spent a semester in Tibet. Bowdoin, she said, changed her life because it opened opportunities and possibilities. She has family in South Berwick and had visited southern Maine often growing up in New York. But coming to Bowdoin, Brunswick and midcoast Maine made her realize her love of Maine was ingrained in her personality, and Maine was where she wanted to grow roots and spend her life. Other than a brief stint in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where she lived when she worked in South Berwick, she has spent all her time in Maine since enrolled at Bowdoin in 2002.

“A lot of other alums were thinking about where they would go after college and when they would come back to Maine,” she said. “I went to career services to figure out how I could stay.”

As part of her application process for her new job, Powell was asked to select a poem written by a student of The Telling Room and published in its anthology, “A New Land.” She chose a poem by Jonathan Rugema called “A Different Kind of Battle.” She started with 10 or so poems, and read each for friends before settling on this one to speak out loud during one of her interviews for the job. “It resonated with me,” she said. “So many did, but this one stayed with me.”


It’s a poem about figuring out who you are and where and how you fit, with “signposts of should” that flash endlessly. Here’s an excerpt:

My mind
My body
The pressure of creation
Who do I trust?
Outside voices
Inside voices
What was hard, then easy, is hard again
A different kind of hardness
A different kind of battle

Powell comes to The Telling Room at a time of renewal and looking forward for the organization. Like many arts and educational institutions, The Telling Room offered much of its programming remotely during the early days of the pandemic. It has resumed with in-person and hybrid gatherings at its Commercial Street writing center, with a goal of returning to its pre-pandemic levels of working with 3,000 students annually. In the year ahead, it plans 17 publications, including chapbooks from the afterschool programs and in-school residencies, an annual anthology, Young Emerging Authors titles and “Stepping Stones,” a new youth anthology focused on writing by 6- to 11-year-olds from across Maine.

“We had multiple submissions sent via snail mail, and over 200 entries from all across Maine, from York County to Washington County, and everywhere in between,” Powell said of “Stepping Stones.” Publishing Workshop students will work on the anthology with the goal of a spring release.

From right, Leigh Ellis, Raisa Hamlin, instructor Molly McGrath and Benedita Zalabantu during a Telling Room publishing workshop in 2019. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

One lesson of the pandemic, Powell said, is the disparity of access and promise of opportunity, both in remote learning in regard to technology, as well as when it comes to on-site Telling Room residencies at schools across Maine. Powell is all about opening access, and remote learning offers the chance to connect with students across Maine who cannot conveniently commute to Portland.

“What are other schools we can be in, what other communities should we be in, and what else can we do to bring students into the space in Portland? We are thinking about the possibilities. In some ways we can think about the darkness of pandemic, but technology brings so many possibilities now. We want to explore those,” she said.

Rylan Hynes, communications manager at The Telling Room and a member of the search committee, said Powell’s hiring resulted from a four-month search process that included input from staff members, board members, community partners, alumni and current students. “We had a great mix of voices, and we arrived at an amazing choice,” Hynes said.


Board president Anya Endsley said hiring someone with Maine roots was not intentional, and the search for a new executive director was national in scope. “We had a pretty expansive executive search process, and Kristina stood out among an impressive and competitive group of candidates,” she said.

Among Powell’s tasks will be helping the organization write its next strategic plan, with an eye on The Telling Room’s 20th anniversary in three years. While COVID-19 hit the organization hard, forcing it to reinvent itself on the fly as a remote-learning organization, it also mapped out opportunities for growth in terms of reaching new students.

“The question is, how to grow, what do we want to do with that growth and what direction do we want to take it in the future? We are very dedicated to equity and diversity work, and inclusion work, and Kristina has a strong background in that,” Endsley said. “She is a dynamic leader, and I’m excited to see what she will do as executive director.”

Spencer Jones, president of the Portland-based Pan Atlantic Foundation, worked with Powell at the Council on International and Educational Exchange and said her commitment to equity and creating opportunity became quickly apparent. An early project involved creating a scholarship for minority and first-generation college students to study abroad. Powell was part of a large team, supervised by Jones, working on the initiative, and took a leadership role because of her ability to sort and analyze data effectively.

“This was at a time when we were beginning to use data a lot more in the management of those programs, and she is really good at that. Kristina is really good at slinging data around and making sense of it. We ended up raising more than $3 million” in scholarships, Jones said.

Noting that The Telling Room is a writing center, Jones said he was always impressed with Powell’s ability to articulate her passion for the importance of her work through her writing, which made her an effective fundraiser. She is a good communicator, which allows her to build trusting partnerships, he said.

In that vein of trust and communication and reflecting her ability to choose just the right words, Powell officiated the wedding of one of Jones’s son a few years ago. “Not surprisingly, she did a good job,” Jones said. “She brought the same rigor she brings to her professional life to my son’s wedding.”

Powell called it “the greatest joy” to work with an organization that has both a strong foundation and hopeful trajectory. “And of course,” she said, “it makes me a little nervous.”

She is brimming with confidence, but doesn’t want to do anything to hurt the legacy of the people who have come before her in this role. With her upbringing in a supportive family and her academic background in understanding others, Powell has the tools she needs to meet those challenges and more.

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