It is just after 7:30 on a chilly morning at St. Paul's Battle Creek Middle School, and Robin Hickman is working to convince a few dozen sixth-grade girls that they are beautiful, smart and strong.
After telling them to "get pumped up," she gives them an assignment: "I want you all to journal," she says. "What does your face say to the world?"
Using the book "The Skin I'm In" by Sharon Flake, as well as music videos and her own multicultural doll collection, Hickman spends the next hour boosting 24 sometimes fragile psyches. "It's beautiful to watch these girls," she said after class. "By the end of the year, they're going to just bloom."
That, above all else, is Robin Hickman's hope.
Daughter of longtime St. Paul activists, the 51-year-old bundle of energy has organized youth sporting events, developed school curriculums, partnered with local arts groups, produced HBO and public television documentaries, walked the Hollywood red carpet and rubbed elbows with power brokers and image-makers around the world.
More recently, she's devoted her time to creating a memorial in St. Paul to Gordon Parks, her great-uncle and the late Life magazine photographer, filmmaker and composer who began capturing the world through his camera lens in St. Paul.
But Hickman's work always comes back to a single goal: planting seeds of hope in young people.
On any given day, she keeps a breathtaking pace, racing from a lunchtime meeting in St. Paul to discuss the Parks memorial to an afternoon meeting in Roseville about her "Lovin' the Skin I'm In" program to an evening stop at a local church to meet with several girls for a "Lovin' " workshop. As she goes, she brings a tote bag filled with dolls, which she often uses to connect with girls of all shapes and colors.
"This is my ministry," said Hickman. "It is a calling of my life."
Those who know her say it is what she was meant to do.
"Robin's work is a persistent contribution to the good of our community," said Mahmoud El-Kati, a local writer and Macalester College professor emeritus who has known Hickman all of her life. "She cares deeply about social justice."
Said Glorius Martin, an official with the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation who was mentored by Hickman: "She is unwavering."
Ever since she was little, Hickman has embraced her connections to St. Paul's past.
She is the daughter of Bobby Hickman, an activist who ran St. Paul's Inner City Youth League, and Patricia Frazier-Hickman, who for 35 years provided child care and was a fixture in the fight for equal rights and educational equity. Parks, who died in 2006, was an almost larger-than-life role model and a regular voice in Hickman's ear.
"She kind of inherited those social-political genes from both her parents," El-Kati said.
Hickman graduated from St. Paul Central High School in 1981 and later earned a communications degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1990, then St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel hired her to be his youth-issues coordinator. She started the city's Night Moves basketball program to keep teens out of trouble at night.
St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith, who worked the Selby Avenue beat back then, knew many of the teens Hickman steered into the program. Several were gang members, he said, yet "they would [take] off their colors, and there was no fighting. And a lot of that was out of respect for Robin."
Several years later, she became executive producer of community affairs programming at Twin Cities Public Television. While there, she helped develop several documentaries, as well as the award-winning "Don't Believe the Hype" program that gave young people the television reins to tell their own stories.
Martin, who was a Central student and local hip-hop artist, said Hickman stood before 100 teens at that first meeting and told them " 'You do the sets, you do the research, you do the interviews and the editing.' Everyone was kind of blown away."
One of the projects Hickman created was a documentary about the young men incarcerated at the Red Wing Correctional Facility. She put the cameras into their hands. Otis Zanders, warden of Red Wing at the time, said she introduced them to Parks' autobiography "A Choice of Weapons" and a path to a better life through photography and film.
"That book gave them another way to see themselves," Zanders said. "Her passion just drips from her pores. She has a feeling for the underdog and the underserved."
After nine years at TPT, Hickman left. Martin said it was because she refused to bow to management desires for softer programming. Hickman says only that there was "an unexpected disconnect."
A lively life
Since leaving, Hickman and her company, SoulTouch, have been involved in many projects, including the HBO miniseries "Laurel Avenue" and the documentary "Half Past Autumn: The Life and Work of Gordon Parks." In 2012, SoulTouch partnered in hosting a Parks film festival.
She's also worked with the Ordway Center through "Taking Our Place … Center Stage," in an effort to better engage the local black community, and served as a consultant on projects with the Walker Art Center and VocalEssence.
"She is so many things," said Patricia Mitchell, CEO and president of the Ordway. "She is an adviser and a counselor and a guide. And a chastiser — a keep-you-authentic barometer. Her own commitment to her community is so intense."
And personal. After all the jobs and travel, Hickman stayed close to home. She still lives in her mother's house, where she grew up, and not long ago, established a scholarship for child development at St. Paul College in memory of her mother, who died in 2011. Her small SoulTouch office is just a few feet off Selby Avenue.
Craig Rice, a film producer and director who has worked with Hickman and calls her "pure love," said he would like to see her work on a grander scale. For her part, Hickman acknowledges a desire to grow. But St. Paul is the village that nurtured her desire to help young people pursue their dreams.
"I simply do what the elders in the village did for me," she said. "Why am I here? Because this is me."