If you ask her, Nikki Romain will say she doesn’t feel very “influential.”
“I don’t think that is on my mind, but I do feel like I have something to say. I’d like for people to listen with open hearts and open minds,” she said. “I have a lot of ideas and visions that I want to set forth.”
Romain is executive director of Artists ReEnvisioning Tomorrow (ART) Inc., which she co-founded with her husband, Jonathon Romain. The couple opened the Romain Arts & Culture Center at the once-derelict Greeley School building, making it a welcoming place for children to experience arts-based programming.
“ART Inc. started with pocket money and four employees,” said Whitney Pierce, program education coordinator at ART Inc. “[Now] it has government and sponsorship funding with a good number of staff. She has a clear view of what she wants, and she is manifesting it every single day.”
“The passion and courage she has for pursuing the goals she has for this community is extraordinary,” added Caroline Huser, an ART Inc. board member. “There is no such thing as impossible for Nikki Romain.”
Romain is putting her all into Peoria, sitting on boards for Heart of Illinois United Way, The Links, Incorporated and Arts Alliance Illinois. She also is vice president of the Greater Peoria Illinois Chapter of Jack and Jill of America Inc., an organization that provides social, cultural and educational opportunities for African American children. Her limited free time is devoted to organizations that create opportunities for women, children and people of color to be successful.
Despite Romain’s many accomplishments, there is a humility about her. She knows her worth, but candidly lists mentors in the nonprofit sector who helped her learn the ropes as she and her husband were starting ART Inc. Romain laughs as she remembers walking around taking notes and soaking up as much information as possible early in the game.
“I’m the type of person, I’m going to give my all. I’m going to go above and beyond. I’m learning,” she said. “I surround myself with people that are smarter than me that have done this work. I know I don’t know everything, and that’s okay because I’m going to ask and I’m going to get the answers.”
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
She’s also honest about why she didn’t expect Peoria to become her home. When she first arrived, she was pregnant with her daughter, Kennedy. She didn’t know anybody in the city, and most of her family, including her father, brother, and two of Jonathon’s four children from his previous marriage, were still living in Chicago.
“I was in Peoria but I had my foot and I’d say my whole leg in Chicago still,” said Romain, laughing.
Much of her time was spent commuting back and forth to Chicago as she continued to audition and perform. Her daughter and the people she met in Peoria made her pause long enough to put down roots.
“I just feel like this community is the most loving and open-armed community that I’ve ever experienced. I’ve traveled everywhere, and little did I know that this place, Peoria, would be the place that feels more like home than any other place,” Romain said. “That’s what I know. So because of that, I pour into the community because this is my home now.”
LOST AND FOUND
Romain said a “nomadic childhood” bounced her between Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. Every year brought a new school. She was sexually assaulted during her sophomore year of high school, something she now talks about openly.
The stigmatization from the assault led to depression, which in turn led to a suicide attempt and then to therapy. Through it all, she felt compelled to keep silent about her experience. Her saving grace was a choir teacher who encouraged her to audition for the school musical.
“When I stepped on stage for the first time, that was it. It changed the trajectory of my life forever,” said Romain, flashing a beaming smile at the thought. “I always say that the stage is and was my therapy because if that teacher hadn’t asked me to audition for that musical, I honestly don’t know how I would have coped with everything. Theater became a place where I could escape everything that was going on in my life.”
Performing gave her back her voice. As a performing artist, Romain found herself in places such as Italy, Los Angeles, Orange County, Chicago and Miami. She acted and sang in touring productions of Steel Magnolias, Godspell, and Little Shop of Horrors, to name a few. While living in Los Angeles, she began writing her own scripts and working on short films.
She was taking a class on play writing when she was encouraged to share the story of her assault. The experience led her to write and star in Lost and Found, a one-woman play about how the arts saved her life.
“It was, again, another form of therapy,” Romain recalls. “Theater saved my life again. And I just shouted it from the rooftops. I was so empowered that I was like, I want to tell my story everywhere. I’m going to do it. So I literally took the show on the road.”
The show toured venues such as the Hollywood Fringe Festival in Los Angeles and the Royal George Theater in Chicago. It was at the final show in Chicago that she received a surprise marriage proposal from Jonathon Romain, a talented artist in his own right.
“When I first met Nikki, we hit it off seamlessly,” Jonathon remembers. “Naively, I thought it was something special about our chemistry. Needless to say, because of that I wanted to marry her. But over the years, I’ve learned that the thing about her that I thought was uniquely mined belonged to everyone. She unselfishly makes everybody feel important and special. Her genuine kindness is contagious. I know for a fact that I am a better person because of her.”
Nikki, in turn, credits her husband with helping her turn the arts into a platform to inspire and empower others. Anyone who works with Romain will tell you she is relentless in pursuing that goal.
“Nikki is all about growth, development and empowerment,” said Corianna Carpenter, a youth leadership teacher at ART, Inc. “Her mission is to inspire and empower the community through arts, education and culture, which she enacts compassionately through her various life-changing programs and events, creating a one-of-a-kind experience for all. She goes out of her way to include everyone, recognize and respect people from all walks of life, and is ultimately the inspiration that Peoria needed to ensure that people embrace their roots while also strengthening their personal and core values.”
“She gives people opportunities that they might never receive,” added teaching artist Morgan Grajewski. “She, alongside Mr. Romain, gives the community a place to turn to when they need that extra glimmer of inspiration and creativity. Nikki likes to get as many people involved as possible. Fundraisers or projects, she loves to create her own team of people who can share the word and message!”
‘SEE IT, BE IT’
One of those projects is Romain’s EmpowHER Our Girls program, for junior high and high school girls. While it started in Peoria, the virtual nature of the class has drawn girls from all over the United States. The students have breakout sessions in topics as diverse as creative writing, coding, finance, painting, soap making and yoga. Successful women from various occupations are invited to speak so the girls can hear their stories about success and wellness.
Romain is proud of the program. She shares that many of the girls came in thinking they had limited career options. The program has opened their eyes to the many different opportunities they have available. They have seen how girls just like them have grown to make a big impact in their communities. Romain tells them, “If you can see it, you can be it.”
“I want them to see more,” she stressed. “There’s so much more. I want these girls to see that it’s attainable.”
Darlene Violet, an ART Inc. board member, says that Romain herself is “an inspiration by being open-hearted and is willing to embark on territory not tried before, not to mention her fantastic singing voice and talent on the stage!”
Her busy schedule means that Romain doesn’t get quite as much stage time now, but she hasn’t completely given up on performing. Art Inc.’s annual fundraiser, Día de los Muertos: Love Never Dies is a theatrical evening celebrating Hispanic culture. Romain sang in the last event and always plays a big part in the ceremonies. Occasionally, she takes on voiceover work.
Mainly, her creative opportunities are behind the scenes. In June she directed ART Inc.’s first theatrical production, and she’s continuing to grow the performing opportunities at the Romain Arts and Culture Center. The teens there are experimenting with podcasting, which has her thinking about the benefits of a production studio in the area.
No matter what comes next, Romain knows she’s found a home with others who share her vision.
‘I wanna create spaces for them and for myself and my family to thrive in those creative spaces.’—Nikki Romain
“There are lots of creative people in Peoria and in the central Illinois area who want to do this, who have the talent to do this. And so I wanna create spaces for them and for myself and my family to thrive in those creative spaces.”
To learn more about the Romain Arts and Culture Center, or ART Inc., visit www.artincpeoria.org.