Maria Colette Powell

December 27, 1963 - November 11, 2023


Obituary For Maria Colette Powell

Maria Colette Powell, 59, died peacefully at home with her husband and daughter by her side, taking her last breaths with ease and grace after enduring ten months of pancreatic cancer, with a metastasized spinal tumor that left her paraplegic. Maria’s strength and compassion shone through powerfully for her loved ones throughout this ordeal, as did her smile, the most beautiful in the world.

Maria had many friends and family who helped during this difficult time and to whom we know she would want to express her deepest thanks for their loving generosity and support.

Maria was the founder of the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization, fearlessly taking on injustice, powerful polluters and government bureaucracies in the Madison area. She was a dedicated community activist, working for and with poor and marginalized communities who are disproportionately harmed by environmental pollution but often lack the voice and power to fight back. Ironically, Maria herself had unknowingly been exposed to PCBs and other contaminants (some of which are linked to pancreatic cancer) during her childhood in the Fox River Valley. It was this knowledge that helped spur her passion for environmental justice.

Maria Slightam was born in Green Bay to Margaret and Dr. Pierre Slightam. Taking a big leap and moving out West on her own, Maria graduated from UC-Santa Barbara and during this time met her future husband Jim while working at the Stanford conference center in Lake Tahoe. Maria returned to Wisconsin for graduate school at UW-Milwaukee on a full scholarship. Soon thereafter Maria and Jim ran the Plymouth Institute for Sustainability, where they were married in 1995. Their daughter Sierra was born in 1997 and they moved to Madison the following year.

Maria earned a dual PhD in environmental studies and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focusing on subsistence anglers in urban environments and their exposures to toxic water pollution. She then worked on a National Science Foundation project assessing the societal and environmental risks of emerging nanotechnologies, after which she left the university to devote herself to grassroots activism and community work.

Maria is survived by her husband Jim, daughter Sierra Powell, and son-in-law Dor Heled, as well as seven siblings, 18 nieces and nephews, and several grand nieces and nephews.

A commemoration of her life will be held at a later time.

To view and sign this guestbook, please visit:

Ryan Funeral Home & Cremation Services

2418 N Sherman Ave


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  • November 16, 2023

    Good bye Maria! I feel a bit like an orphan as you have been a spiritual mother to me since we first met and then worked together during my stay in Madison from 2006 and 2009. Thank you so much for everything you taught me about environmental health, environmental justice, nano-related risks, and, on a more personal note, about motherhood and mental sanity in this more-than-crazy world! I will always remember our long conversations in State St coffee shops and Madison libraries, your intense ideas coming 'off the top of your head' while biking along the lake between your home and UW Madison. You were the most knowledgeable, passionate and communicative person I have ever met I think. Your satirical humour, your smartness, generosity, and genuineness in all your commitments have kept inspiring me after my return to France. You paved the way to the ban on titanium dioxide (E171) in European food and now also elsewhere in the world, although not yet in the USA ("no one is a prophet in his own land"...). I am, and will stay, grateful, appreciative and happy to have happened to know you!

  • November 14, 2023

  • November 14, 2023

  • November 14, 2023

    Maria was a truly remarkable woman who found peace at last. I'm so very grateful to have known her.

  • November 13, 2023

    For many years our paths often crossed because of our shared commitment to environmental activism. After her diagnosis, I got to know Maria as a friend which started me on the hunt for humorous "funnies" that I could email to her. Just knowing that we shared a laugh for even a brief moment was a gift to me. Our last email exchange happened to be about Fisher Price toys and she shared that she once had a castle set complete with princesses and a dragon. I said that we would have had a great time playing together when we were kids except our version would involve putting polluters in the tower and we would burn our corsets. We shared an especially good laugh about the latter, so my last memory is a really good one. Special hugs and blessings for Jim and Sierra. Laura

  • November 13, 2023

    Maria, I learned so much from you in Grassroots Leadership College 20 years ago. I think of all the planning, and laughter and going out for coffee when Sierra was a little girl. I am honored we reconnected by chance encounters at a restaurant and Kanopy. I think of foam rollers, covid picnics at parks, eating fried food, the incredible dinners at your house (such a good cook), summer dinners outside on my deck, griping and growling about a universe of things, and laughing about the massive absurdity of this existence. You made a difference, Maria. In my life and in many others.

  • November 13, 2023

    It was a joy to know and chat with Maria (along with Jim and Sierra) over the years. We so appreciated the warmth and hospitality and generosity that Maria showed to those who knew her. We cherish the memories of hospitality around the Powell's fire circle or the potluck table. We thank her for tireless work for justice for the poor and marginalized, and for exposing and explaining the dangers of toxicity in our environment. We wish her family peace and send them love as they grieve Maria's passing. We are very thankful we had Maria in our lives. She will be missed. Nancy and MIchael Shinners

  • November 13, 2023

    Our condolences to the entire family... we remember fondly our chats w Maria at the state street studio... and late night drop offs w Sierra to home from Bharatanatyam class... so much time has flown by. All our love to you Jim, Sierra, Dor and the entire family. Sending love-- Lisa and Robert

  • November 13, 2023

    Maria. I always liked running into you at the Library, Co-op, Troy Gardens and other Northside locales. I appreciated our brief check-in conversations about life and family and current things. I am sorry for your departure and pray peace and comfort for your family in the midst of grief, and rest for your soul in the care of God your Creator. You will be missed Maria.

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what our families say

Tiffany Foster went out of her way to fulfill all my requests, talked me through problems I was facing, and tried to make me feel as comfortable as possible when I was a wreck, totally crushed, and I thank her with all of my heart for that.

James S. | July 2020

The professional manner of the staff made a difficult time a little easier.

Lynda R. | July 2020

Services provided for both parents were perfect, on time, and no issues. Brenda is awesome and strong!

Michael M. | July 2020

Skyler was absolutely amazing. She was so caring and helpful through this whole process. She even went above and beyond to meet with us in DeForest and even to make a stop at our home to drop off or pick up anything needed. While it was a small gesture, it was so helpful and greatly appreciated.

Brooke S. | Dec. 2020

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