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From a Chaotic Life to a New One of 'Familial' Order

June 24, 2010 By:
Fredda Sacharow, JE Feature
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Nikki Johnson-Huston

The advanced diplomas and snapshots on the office walls at 1515 Arch St. reflect a rising young attorney, here seen grinning with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, there standing shoulder-to shoulder with comedian Bill Cosby at Temple University.

But the pictures Nikki Johnson-Huston carries inside tell a vastly different story.

These show a 5-year-old whose mother beat her with the cord from an electric fryer for not knowing her ABC's. A frantic 9-year-old in a motel room dialing shelters with the chilling words, "My mommy is passed out, and we have no place to go. Can you help us?" An 18-year-old flunking out of college, again facing the prospect of life on the streets.

The trajectory of the inner-city kid from Detroit who was named a "2009 Lawyer on the Fast Track" by the Philadelphia Legal Intelligencer has been far from smooth, Johnson-Huston is quick to tell you. She credits hard work, a large measure of grit -- and no small amount of serendipity.

Count among the latter the Jewish couple from Haverford who took a chance on this young African-American woman -- and helped transform her life.

In 1994, Deborah Leavy was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union Philadelphia chapter; Donald Bersoff was a law professor at Villanova. Raising 3-year-old Benjamin while juggling careers, they had already been through three live-in nannies when Johnson-Huston answered their ad in the Main Line Times.

"I remember talking with Nikki on the phone, thinking she sounded terrific: very poised, very articulate. She sounded like she'd be great," says Leavy.

For Johnson-Huston, now 35, the job offered a first glimpse into another way of life -- one she'd seen before only in the books she devoured at libraries to escape the nightmare of living in a series of shelters.

"I saw an intact family; I saw what that dynamic was like. I saw people planning for the future, having cocktail parties, having book clubs. It gave me a new framework for what I wanted my life to look like," she says of her year-and-a-half in the Leavy/Bersoff household.

'It Felt Like a Prison'
Sitting in her 15th-floor office in the One Parkway Building, where she works as an assistant city solicitor in the Major Tax Unit of the city's Law Department, Johnson-Huston speaks candidly about the horrors of breaking into homes at her mother's urging, of running in terror from her knife-wielding younger brother, of enduring foul meals at endless food kitchens.

"There was always chaos at home: men beating up my mom, always some kind of drugs," she says. "The shelters are scary -- the communal showers, the people you don't know who would come up and take your stuff. It felt like a prison to me."

Little wonder, then, that when Johnson-Huston landed at St. Joseph's University here in the early 1990s, hard-won scholarship in hand -- courtesy, in part, of the strict Catholic grandmother who had taken her in during middle school and demanded academic excellence -- she felt overwhelmed and totally out of place.

"I didn't realize how poor I was," she says. "I felt ashamed of where I came from. I felt like a fraud, as though I didn't belong there. My heart would always pound when I would swipe my meal card, because I never knew if it would be rejected for having no money in the account."

By the end of the second semester, the student who prided herself on her quick mind and her ability to adapt faced grim reality: She had not made the grade.

How much longer she could have survived became a moot point when Johnson-Huston made the call Deborah Leavy remembers so well.

"She had worked for somebody who treated her badly, who fired her with no notice, and she was staying in a hotel at the airport with no charge card. She was pretty desperate," says Leavy.

What began as an employer-employee relationship quickly blossomed into an extended family.

And as she learned about Jewish culture and absorbed the family's deeply rooted sense of tikkun olam, she came to experience an affinity with Judaism, says the attorney.

Ten years after meeting Ben, she would light the first candle at his Bar Mitzvah; the two remain good friends even today. In 2005, Ben served as an usher when Nikki Johnson married Shawn Huston. Leavy was the matron of honor, Bersoff a groomsman.

"I can't really imagine my life without her," says Ben, who just finished his first year at Emory University. "She's sort of like a third parent, but also like a sister."

With Leavy and Bersoff's encouragement, the young nanny re-enrolled at St. Joe's, taking classes at night, then returning back home to do dishes and study.

She graduated from Temple University's School of Law in 2004 with three graduate degrees at once: a juris doctorate, an MBA and a master of law in taxation -- seven years of education, which she did in four.

Last year, the Philadelphia Bar Association presented Johnson-Huston with the Craig M. Perry Award-Young Lawyers Division. The citation recognizes her time spent in community-oriented activities.

Those activities -- in keeping with the Jewish commitment to tikkun olam -- include mentoring high school students, volunteering with the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children and speaking in public forums about her life, including a fireside chat with comedian Bill Cosby, hosted by their shared alma mater.

Johnson-Huston was also instrumental in organizing a dialogue group for African-American and Jewish women, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. The group is a direct outgrowth of her time as Ben's nanny, she says.

"I would absolutely say that my wanting to be involved with creating this group was a tribute to my love for the Bersoff/Leavy family. We chose to become a family and to love and respect each other. It didn't matter that we were different races, religions, economic status or cultures. I wish the rest of the world could learn that lesson." 

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