Achieving Your Dreams Through Resilience: From Homeless to Ms. Pennsylvania with Nikki Johnson-Huston
In this episode of On Record PR, recorded in early April 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, we go on the record with Nikki Johnson-Huston. Nikki is a tax attorney, motivational speaker, tech-entrepreneur, advocate on behalf of the homeless, and United States of America’s Ms. Pennsylvania 2020.
As a State and Local Tax attorney in Philadelphia, Nikki represents individuals and small business owners who have City of Philadelphia tax issues. She also is an advocate who works to educate the public about the challenges that people experiencing homelessness face. She shares her personal story of growing up in poverty and experiencing homeless three times in her life before becoming a successful lawyer. She has used the experience to create the Donafy App which uses technology to help the homeless find social service resources. In 2019, Nikki was named United States of America’s Ms. Pennsylvania 2020.
Gina met Nikki more than a decade ago when the two served as committee chairs for the Philadelphia Bar Association. At the time, Gina was moved by Nikki’s story. Until that time, Nikki had not shared her story publicly. Nikki’s personal story of overcoming homelessness to become a lawyer, was then written by Gina and featured in the Huffington Post: From Homeless to Lawyer, One Woman’s Amazing Journey.
According to Nikki, “the Huffington Post story opened up the door to an amazing amount of opportunities” for Nikki to become a national advocate for issues related to homelessness. This is what Nikki sees as her “purpose.” She has since spoken to members of Congress and raised money for a lot of local nonprofits. She speaks at schools and homeless shelters to share share her story and to advocate on behalf of better opportunities to people who are living in poverty, especially people who are suffering from homeless.
In December 2010, Nikki and Gina were elected to the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Board of Governors where they worked closely together on various initiatives. Nikki and Gina remain friends. Gina hopes to share Nikki’s inspirational story with listeners around the world.
Being Resilient in Light of the Coronavirus Pandemic
During the podcast interview, Nikki shared many tips about being resilient in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, pay cuts, layoffs, furloughs and other challenges or any other situation that might feel insurmountable.
- Allow yourself to feel what you feel. Don’t suppress anything.
- Figure out what you need to do to get buy. Make a list and do it.
- Accept the things you cannot change.
- Take an inventory of all resources including mentors, loved ones, and others.
- Start writing a new story. You are in control.
- Have a plan of attack.
- Don’t let your pride and ego get in the way of asking for help.
- Have a hierarchy of needs. They should include shelter, food, welfare and safety.
- Become a minimalist. Remember, you are not your stuff.
- Assume you may lose your job and make sound financial decisions before that happens.
- Don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations.
- Don’t forget your dreams. There are likely things you can be doing to pursue them.
- Look for all the blessings and silver linings.
- Build something from the ashes.
- Remember how you felt during the coronavirus pandemic when all is said and done. Remember, there are people who feel this way everyday without a global crisis.
- Be part of the collective solution instead of being a victim.
- Encourage others around you to dream and think big.
- Don’t be afraid. We will get through this together.
What follows are a few Q&As with Nikki and Gina. To hear the full story, be sure to listen to the podcast. There are many surprising twist and turns.
How are you finding resilience to cope with the coronavirus pandemic?
I’m okay. There are some days that it feels like I’m in the movie Groundhog Day. That can be a little distressing. What I decided to do is to go back to what I knew. I was kind of getting off my schedule and not sleeping the same way. I had to get back on my routine. I’m going to go to bed at the same time, getting up at the same time, going for a walk while social distancing, doing yoga, doing my hair every morning, and by nine o’clock, I’m sitting at my desk to do work. Getting back into a healthy routine has allowed me to have a real sense of normalcy. What’s been difficult for me is missing my community and my sense of purpose of connecting with people. I’m an extrovert. I love meeting people. I love hugging people. Sometimes you have to realize that what you want to do, it may not be the right time and you can help in a different way. And I’m always somebody who has big and bold ideas.
I think why I’ve been resilient is I’ve always tried to look at what are the opportunities that can come out of a situation. More importantly, I identify the lessons for me. For example, I was tired before the stay-at-home order went into effect in PA. I was doing a lot, and this forced me to be a little quiet. That’s a wonderful opportunity. Then I really started to think, what are people concerned about? They’re concerned about their health, they’re concerned about their families, they’re concerned about their future.
Looking back at your childhood, who was it who helped you to find resilience?
After a year of living on the streets with my mother and younger brother, the decision was made to send me to go live with my grandmother. Unfortunately, my brother was put into foster care. My grandmother was living in section eight housing for senior citizens in California and she wasn’t supposed to have any children living with her. When I went to my grandmother, I’d been out of school for several months and they wanted to hold me back. She was an incredible advocate for me. She told them that I was a smart tester. It turned out that I tested gifted in math and English and instead of being a homeless girl, I became a smart girl and was treated accordingly. That put me on the path to where I am now.
When we were on welfare and getting government cheese, I’d be embarrassed. All of the things that I know people right now are having to do. They are asking, “How did I get into this place?” I’ll tell you the same thing that my grandmother told me, which is don’t feel bad for needing help, but when you get an opportunity, remember how this feels and do better and be better towards other people. And that has resonated because it was empowering. It took the shame out of having financial difficulties, but also gave me hope about what I could do for the future.
My grandmother also wanted me to remember that there were other people who were going through what we were going through or had even less. And even though when I was with her and we were living in section eight housing and food stamps, it was palatial compared to being on the streets and having to sleep on a park bench some nights. Sometimes things are going to happen. Sometimes you are going to make mistakes. And could have made better decisions, but it doesn’t mean that you’re not a worthy person and it doesn’t mean that you were deserving of what’s going on.
A message I want to say to people is just because I was going through those challenges as a child and even into my early adulthood, didn’t mean that I didn’t have dreams. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t worth saving. It just meant that I was going through a difficult time. And you know, when people ask me like, what do you take away from that? Because I struggled for a long time. Like why have these things happened to my family? The answer I came up with several years ago was, why not my family? No one is deserving of this. It just was what happened. But maybe it happened to me particularly because I was going to use these lessons and I was going to do something with it and put it out in the world in a positive way and really be able to articulate that. My story represents thousands if not millions of people’s lives and experiences and struggles.
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