Prior to World War II, restrictive housing covenants forbade the sale of property in Washington, DC’s upper northwest neighborhood of Shepherd Park to both African American and Jewish
While Nikki Paula Webber was growing up on “Judges' Row,” so named for the preponderance of black judges residing on the street, including her father, the Honorable Paul Rainey Webber III, she didn’t realize “what a special
Sporting a breezy
“Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his family lived right across the street from our house. There were a lot of positive role models," she says of the community of strivers. "Parents were, for the most part, all professionals. And you know how they say it takes a village. So many people who nurtured you and believed in you. It was absolutely an expectation that you would excel. You didn’t have a choice. Most of the kids went to private schools, and it was just expected that you were going to go to college and probably graduate school and you were going to make something out of your life. It was also very much expected that you were going to give back to your community."
Growing up in DC during its majority black, "Chocolate City" era, "really shaped my identity and sense of pride," she says. My mother, Fay DeShields Webber was a DC Public School teacher, and my father comes from generations of civil rights workers so, my parents made sure we knew our own history and nstilled pride in us in terms of race and our self-esteem. Yes, the guys on the corner who were drug addicts or drug dealers were black, but so was your mayor, so was your doctor, so was your dentist," she says. "So I never saw just one slice of the black experience; I got to see the breadth of who we were as a people." She describes its rarity, that many "don’t share that similar experience if they don’t come from a city like DC that was so overwhelmingly black."
She carried that sense of pride from her home life in Shepherd Park to her school life at private, predominately white, Georgetown Visitation Prep, where she and her
"Where I grew up, what success looked like
Eager to get to New York, she decided graduate school was the conduit. She'd get a student loan, pay for housing in the bustling city and get a Master's in Media Studies. "So I went to the New School and I thought how do I combine my two loves, TV and music? Hmm, music videos!" At the time, Classic Concepts was the leading music video production company. Nikki got the phone number of co-founder, Lionel C. Martin from a friend who worked there. "I completely and obnoxiously harassed Lionel," she chuckles at her tenacity. "I called him on a daily basis saying I'll sweep the floors; I'll get coffee; just let me intern for you. Finally, I wore him down. He said 'I am so sick of you calling, I’m going to check you out for one day as a PA (production assistant) if you promise to stop calling me.'"
She set out to disprove a prevailing notion that female PAs didn't work as hard as male
After a couple of years, "the music industry started changing, the budgets were getting smaller, and people started splintering off as their stars started rising. The writing was on the wall. So I thought, I’ll go into TV. I’ve always had good instincts." She entered the television arena during the talk-show craze, moving to Los Angeles and snagging a junior position with Dick Clark Productions on the Tempestt Bledsoe Show. "Then I rode that talk show wave. Back-to-back, I got on Vibe, then Donny & Marie," until they went on hiatus. She longed to return to New York, so when an opportunity arose to work there as an associate producer on a British show coming to the US, she jumped, though she had little faith in its success. The show was Who Wants to be a Millionaire? "It was a phenomenon; it was huge! So much for my instincts," she laughs. "I worked as hard as I could, and I was promoted to coordinating producer," culminating in Emmy Awards in both 2000 and 2001.
But once again the West Coast beckoned. "One city would be the antidote to the other. When I would get tired of the constant activity and being on top of each other in New York, I would crave LA where things were more spread out, and you could relax." But on the flip, she'd declare, "There’s no sophistication out here, I need sophistication!" She headed back to Cali as "the reality show craze hit," working on a host of reality shows including Elimidate, Wife Swap, ABC Family's, The Last Resort and BET's College Hill until she got a call from a childhood friend, media magnate, Alfred Liggins. Along with his mother, Cathy Hughes, Liggins had been very successful in the radio industry, and he wanted to parlay that success into launching a cable television network. "Alfred called and asked me if I would help him put together a demo reel to pitch to Comcast. I said sure I’d help, but if I did, I wanted a job. Sure enough, it got picked up, and I became Vice President, Talent Relations and Casting at TV One."
"I was the person who figured out what talent fit our brand and negotiated all their deals. And the thing that was really cool about it is that I believed in it. If I believe in something, I believe in it with my whole heart." Remembering the
When planning for a nightly talk show called Way Black When for Black History Month 2011, the TV One programming team had to choose a house band for the show. The Roots were doing Jimmy Fallon, and Mint Condition was the only other band they felt was a contender. "Everyone thought they'd be a great choice; they're really talented, and they can perform any genre of music," so Nikki booked the Minneapolis band.
Jeffrey Allen, MC keyboardist/saxophonist recalls the November 2010 day in Los Angeles when he met the woman who would become his wife. "Nikki was the first person from the network to welcome the band to the set and offered her help with anything we needed, and after a quick handshake, I became curious. The following couple of days I remember watching Nikki work with the talent on the show. However, I could not figure out her role in the whole production. So, I tried to enlist help—Terry Ellis rom
Nikki adds, "As someone who worked with talent for so long, that was something I didn’t do; I didn’t fraternize, but he was pretty special, and I knew it pretty early on." Jef admits, "The first time I saw Nikki, I quickly told the guys she could be Mrs. Graham." For clarification, he adds, "For those that don’t know, "Mrs. Graham" was what Eddie Murphy’s character (Marcus Graham) initially called Robin Givens' character (Jacqueline Broyer) in the movie, Boomerang. It was my way to establish the seriousness of the situation. Funny how things work out!"
Nikki continues, "I always loved the song 'What Kind of Man Would I Be?' To hear
Nikki and Jef declared forever love before family and friends on June 23, 2012, in an elegantly modern wedding ceremony at the W Hotel in Miami Beach. The bliss of their merged lives would be shaken just a year later when on July 3, 2013, Nikki's dearly and deeply beloved nephew Paul R. Webber, V died by suicide after years of struggle with depression and anxiety. "I don't think anyone in the family knew the extent to which he was suffering. Paul was my heart. He was such a special kid, and he had everything going for him; he was good-looking, he was smart, he was charming, he was funny, he was really kind and compassionate. In high school, he was part of the Honor Society, the Spanish Honor Society, the International Baccalaureate program. He was offered academic scholarships to Morehouse, Northwestern, and the University of Washington, St. Louis. He had swagger; it was shocking that this could happen. My first thought was that if this could happen to a kid like Paul, what chance do most of our kids have who don't have the resources and the supportive family Paul had. I just knew at that moment I was supposed to do something with this; that he didn’t die in vain. I knew that he would want me to help other people like him."
Having been with TV One from the ground up, it was difficult for Nikki to leave the fold after ten years. She'd developed deep and lasting friendships there, but her departure has presented her the "the opportunity to do something else that I feel really passionate about, starting the not-for-profit I Live For
It started with a plan "to utilize my skills and leverage my experience and connections" to make a film. "But a documentary can take years to make," and she wanted to address this urgent issue with immediacy, speaking directly to youths. "The documentary audience isn't necessarily the audience I’m trying to reach," she says.
One of her goals is to secure a media partner for the organization, for example, BET. "Depression and anxiety would be a
She continues with staggering statistics: "One in four people in the world will develop a mental disorder in their lifetime; and one in five Americans. People from marginalized communities have a higher risk factor. Suicide is the third leading cause of death of black males ages 15-24." She was appalled by the lack of discussion and vowed to open the dialogue given her work in media. "We can’t afford to keep pretending that we’re too strong for this, we can’t afford to be silent anymore. Latina teens have the highest rate of suicide attempts of all teenage girls. Our kids are hurting; our kids are in trouble, and it is in epidemic proportions." The cumulative effect of various
She offers that signs of adolescent depression can be misconstrued as "typical teen angst." When a young woman Nikki interviewed shared her suicidal feelings with a teacher, she was told: "Oh, you're too pretty to be depressed." She adds, "another reason it's so important to me to focus on black and Latino kids is that disproportionately boys who are having mental health struggles will be penalized for it. A white kid could be struggling in school and the teachers/counselors may say, 'Oh, he’s struggling, maybe we need to get him some help.' A black boy will be struggling, and it’s he needs to be expelled because he’s violent. And it's the same thing with jail," she says. "I interviewed the former US Surgeon General, Dr. David Sacher, who said the LA County Jail is the number one mental health facility in the country. How sad is that? Over 60% of inmates are mentally ill. They’ve got an illness, and this is what we do. We just throw them in jail.” And homelessness doesn't always equate with joblessness. "Over 60% of our homeless are mentally ill, also."
Nikki too knows the struggle of depression and anxiety. Her personal battle went long undiagnosed. "By nature, I've always been a very sensitive and self-reflective person. I knew that I was incredibly blessed with a loving, supportive family and enough money to pay not only the bills but live a pretty lavish lifestyle. I was at the top of my field having won two Emmys, and I was doing work I believed in. By all metrics, I was "successful," but I wasn't happy. I knew something was off, so I thought I would seek advice from a therapist. Because I was highly functional, I didn't think I was actually depressed, but I thought they could give me some quick motivational tips to get my mojo back. Turns out it wasn't my mojo. I WAS depressed. I was absolutely shocked. I'm a perfectionist and put a lot of pressure on myself. I just assumed that came with the territory. That it was normal." While she once normalized her symptoms, she now she works to normalize the conversations around mental health and is forthcoming with details of her journey. "I gave the therapist some
A few years after her initial diagnosis, she was also "diagnosed with anxiety disorder and possible PTSD after Paul passed. I just felt a bit out-of-sorts and unmotivated. Other times I would feel really anxious and I would ruminate, literally make myself sick worrying about doing a good job. I didn't realize my anxiety was actually anxiety. For me, it manifested in physical symptoms, ringing in my ears, I was exhausted all the time, insomnia, chest pains, lump in my throat, nausea, headaches and I was always cold," she recalls. Fearing an impending heart attack, she went to her primary care physician who prescribed medication for anxiety. Nikki didn't believe him and refused the
She speaks of the interconnectedness of anxiety disorder and depression, "You can have one without the other, but often they are two sides of the same coin." The two together are the crucible forging a vicious cycle of chemical changes in the brain. The rush, rush of the anxious mind eventually leading to a depressive crash. As Nikki puts it, "you’ve worked yourself up into a lather, and then you’re in bed for the next week. Everything is an effort. Everything you used to enjoy is a complete chore."
She is grateful to have embarked on a journey of healing which began with talk therapy. "I had an amazing therapist, a super smart, savvy, warm-hearted, sistah named Tamara Jackson, who helped me to identify my triggers and the thought patterns that were holding me back. She also showed me--a classic people pleaser-- the importance of setting boundaries and saying NO." Through journaling and getting in touch with her feelings, she discovered that she'd been self-medicating with "non-stop jet-setting: hiking through the Brazilian Amazon, hang gliding in Hawaii, spelunking in Tulum, bungee jumping in Vegas." She was "an adrenaline junkie. Anything that pushed the limits, like marathon running, I was down for. I couldn't sit still, but that's what I needed to do. I was constantly (though unconsciously) trying to distract myself from the unhappiness, disconnectedness, hopelessness and lack of purpose/meaning I felt." She gave Bikram yoga, with its extreme heat, a try and loved it. She's since embraced other forms and sees "how paying attention to my breath connects me to the moment. In yoga, I'm fully present, not worrying about the future or lamenting the past." Her practice of mindfulness has become a way of life. She meditates "for a minimum of 20 minutes a day, twice when I can." And she serves as an outreach volunteer with the Transcendental Meditation Center of Washington, D.C.
Once I saw the benefits of meditation, I wanted to learn more so I went to India to study at the Art of Living ashram in Bangalore." The experience put her so far "outside of my comfort zone that I nearly had a panic attack," but eventually "I learned how to accept discomfort by just sitting with it and breathing through it. From there I traveled to Delhi, Agra, Rishikesh and finally Ananda in the Himalayas where I studied the philosophical principles of Yoga, Meditation, Pranayama, and Ayurveda.
She realizes that all of her accomplishments and experiences have prepared her for this, her life's work as a social entrepreneur. On June 23, 2016, her fourth wedding anniversary, she launched I Live For...
For champion slam poet, Douglas Powell, known by the stage name, Roscoe Burnems, it's poetry. He delivered a powerful spoken word performance at the launch event and shared his story of surviving severe depression and multiple suicide attempts as a teen. Thankfully, an observant teacher recognized that he was in distress and got him counseling. He found poetry in his quest for healing. "He is thriving now," Nikki says. "It’s a really beautiful story. He's going to be in the film."
Dynamic speakers from the I Live For...
The incredibly moving event was an all-hands-on-deck family affair, with Asher
As July is National Minority Mental Health Month, consider a donation to the I Live For...
For Nikki, the TROVE ten is an exercise in identifying some of the things she lives for.
1. Prince. "For as long as I can remember, music has always been my personal escape. I was 13 when Prince came out with his first album, For You. My entire world was rocked. I had never seen anyone like him. I grew up in a predominantly black, upper middle class neighborhood where there were unspoken rules about how you were supposed to look, speak, and conduct yourself. At the same time, I went to a predominantly white, all girls private school where there were additional (and very strict) rules about how I was to comport myself. I felt stifled by all of it. Then here was this man who defied all rules. Aside from his musical genius and his off-the-charts sex appeal, he was the freest, most self-possessed and fearless person I'd ever seen. From that day on he's been a constant source of inspiration for me. I even made a What Would Prince Do? bracelet to remind me to stay true to myself!"
2. AFROPUNK FEST. The growing festival (and movement) "like Prince, is groundbreaking, soulful, rebellious, nonconformist and free."
3. Hamilton on Broadway. "I listen to the soundtrack every, single day, especially when my anxiety starts kicking in. The song 'Wait for It' has become my personal anthem when I need to feel empowered."
4. Frank Capra Movies. "I LOVE his classic, screwball comedies. For a relentless optimist like me, Capra delivers everytime!"
5. My Goal Digger sweatshirt. She loves a good statement tee or sweatshirt, "Spiritual Gangster" among them; but this one is her
8. "Phryne Fisher" from Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. The title character from the Australian TV series is "a woman way ahead of her time. Smart, beautiful, tough, adventurous, has fun playing by her own rules, all while wearing the MOST fabulous outfits."
9. British TV. "Scrotal Recall, Extras, Call the Midwife, The Detectorists, Doctor Who, Sherlock, AbFab, The Graham Norton Show, Jools Holland. I love snarky British humor; the shows have more ethnically diverse casting; I like that the actors look more
10. Enjoying the Journey, One Lawyer's Memoir. By Paul R. Webber III, it's her father's 2003 autobiography highlighting "the power of family, education, self-esteem, and social responsibility. Dad was born in 1934 in the Jim Crow South and grew up to become a well-respected Superior Court Judge in Washington, DC. He faced unspeakable racism along the way, but he never allowed it to defeat him or make him bitter. He has the patience, resilience, deep insight and compassion of a Zen master. He's my hero."