Helene Powell was born on April 17, 1919, and raised by a close-knit family in a small black community in San Jose. When Powell turned seventeen, her family moved to San Francisco, where she attended college preparatory courses at Lowell High School. After high school, Powell enrolled in University of California, Berkeley in 1937, earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. There, Powell served as president of the Negro Students Club and participated in the Associated Student Government’s Committee for Peace, California Youth Legislature, and Student Workers Federation. Upon graduating in 1941, Powell took a job with Alexander Balart Coffee Company in San Francisco, participating in a three-day strike against the company over wages. Powell’s involvement in the strike prompted her to become active in the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, Local 6. As a member of Local 6, Powell frequently served as shop stewardess, spoke at membership meetings, and conducted house meetings. In 1943 Powell was appointed as the ILWU's International Representative to Los Angeles. With Local 26, she organized aircraft workers at Aero Reclamation Company. In Los Angeles Powell became particularly active in organizing African American and Mexican American women warehouse workers and in housing reform for minorities. Powell also served as an election worker for the CIO Political Action Committee, registering black voters around Los Angeles’ Central Avenue. In the mid-1940s Powell returned to San Francisco and Local 6, becoming active in the Legislative Committee. As a member of the committee, Powell took up a variety of issues, including Local 6’s involvement in the war effort, gender discrimination, rent control, and housing reform.