By Maya Beecham and Mahmoud El Kati
On a late, sunny fall afternoon at a busy café in St. Paul, a woman in her early 30’s talked with a teenage girl she was recently introduced to. The girl’s eyes lit up as she shared her vision for impacting the world by promoting positive self-image through fashion.
As the girl talked, the woman envisioned the possibilities and recognized the energy of making dreams reality. At a point in their conversation, the woman who orchestrated this impromptu meeting sat watching with tears in her eyes as her current intern talked with a longtime mentee that she met at the age of 14.
Robin Hickman, community leader, visionary, friend, mentor, and sister brought the woman and girl together. Robin has quietly led a versatile success-filled career with international impact. Yet, for years she has made a point of returning to the community she grew up in and reinvesting into youth the values, wisdom and vision that were imparted to her in her life.
On Friday, October 19, 7-9 pm at Subtext Bookstore, 165 Western Avenue North in St. Paul, Robin will serve as the keynote speaker for CommUniversity. The CommUniversity of Minnesota is a collective of scholars from the academy and the street gathered with community members in a process of collective learning and self-education.
Robin sees her work as an inherent responsibility. “It was instilled in me at a young age by my mother Patricia Ellen Frazier-Hickman, father Robert Hickman, my grandmother Lillian Parks primarily, and then many people in the village to be a servant leader. So I think that I am a servant leader with an emphasis on servant.
But I think that when God has called you to guide or shepherd that you can’t play small in that leadership part. It references in the Bible that a true leader is a servant first. I remember being in a meeting where Mahmoud El-Kati emphasized that. I truly always wanted to nurture the servant side of leadership first.”
As a servant, she nurtures lives. From her office on Selby Avenue and Milton Street in St Paul, Robin formulates strategies to improve the lives of youth on a grand scale. She is the CEO and executive producer of SoulTouch Productions, a television and film production, youth mentorship and media consulting company with a mission to make meaningful media and produce powerful social impact experiences. The business of SoulTouch and Robin’s personal commitment is to plant seeds of hope in young people and present “visions of possibilities.”
This investment of hope has an international footprint. For the last eight years, hundreds of young girls have been universally inspired from St. Paul to Africa, Israel, Indonesia and beyond, by the “Lovin’ the Skin I’m In” (Lovin’) Hope & Healing Movement, of which Robin is the founder and curriculum developer.
Lovin’ is a SoulTouch partnership initiative for youth inspired by Sharon G. Flake’s book The Skin I’m In. The movement explores societal standards of beauty and media influences on self-esteem and identity.
Robin has coordinated Lovin’ events featuring Ms. Flake, A Girl Like Me Award-winning New York filmmaker Kiri Davis, and actor, writer and director Kimberly Elise. The Lovin’ Movement is featured in the Itasca Project and TPT documentary, Close the Gap: Race Disparities.
SoulTouch produced a short video for Flake’s latest book, You Don’t Even Know Me, which is a collection of poems and short stories about young urban males (YouTube). She also developed the book’s discussion guide for Disney Publishing.
From project to project, Robin expands the concept of “village” to include community members, celebrities, and major institutions to uplift youth and the communities they live in. “Taking Our Place…Center Stage” is an Ordway Center and SoulTouch partnership commitment that will more deeply engage community members of African descent in organizational opportunities.
Robin also works with the Ordway Center’s production, marketing and community/education engagement programs, which have included The Color Purple, The Gospel at Colonus and a St. Paul Public Schools Arts Partnership initiative with the Gordon Parks High School. She has worked with VocalEssence as a consultant and WITNESS artist and the Walker Art Center on various community events, including a screening of HBO’s Jim Brown: All American by director Spike Lee.
Robin never gets caught up in the glory of her work or the occasional celebrity she encounters in various projects. It’s her commitment to carry on her familial legacy and promote cultural heritage.
She made a promise to her great uncle the late Gordon Parks, world-renowned photographer, musician, writer and film director. “I was deliberate in infusing his life into the lives of young people. My last visit with Uncle Gordon in New York, we talked about how he was very concerned [about] what is going to happen with Black boys. And he was very emotional.
“He asked what is going to happen with all that I did. I promised him that I would do the best I could do with others and the family and beyond to make sure his legacy lived on in a significant way that it transforms lives. That is what he was most proud of me about. To do a major documentary on his life on HBO (Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks) while he was living was amazing.”
Currently, Robin is working on the implementation of “In the Footsteps of Gordon Parks Initiative,” a program focused on continuing Parks’ work. The Tell-A-Vision Crew and CHOICE of Weapons (inspired by Parks’ autobiography) projects are SoulTouch social development initiatives that engage youth in multi-media making and community building. “My Living Won’t Be In Vain: African American Organ Donation” was produced by SoulTouch for LifeSource and Southside Community Health Service for broadcast on TPT.
In addition to media production, Robin pursues one of her greatest passions in dolls. SoulReal Doll Community is a multicultural collection of restyled Mattel dolls posed in original sets and outfits with props created by Robin. Each doll has a story about its lifestyle and career.
Robin uses the dolls in motivational presentations to inspire creativity and positive self-esteem and to promote cultural diversity. Her collection has been featured on HGTV, the Star Tribune and Mpls/ St. Paul Magazine, and her original doll hats were displayed at the Guthrie Theater during its presentation of the play “Crowns.”
Robin takes nothing for granted in her journey. Everything is utilized as a tool to enhance souls she encounters on a daily basis. “I am a woman that is unapologetically in love with my history, heritage, my people, and also humanity. But the foundation of being a lover of humanity has to first be grounded in having love for who I am and who my people are, understanding that I will always be not just an advocate but an activist, a warrior for the richness of my people, being a part of the humanity equation.”
The village planted seeds of principle, character, determination, and love, and Robin is an example of the harvest. Her career began at the age of 12 at Inner City Youth League, where she produced her first documentary film entitled Black Women in the Metro Area.
At the age of 15, she produced and hosted community media programming at KUXL Radio and served as an on-air reporter at KSTP-TV interviewing R&B artists George Clinton and Evelyn “Champagne” King. After college she worked in public affairs programming at WCCO-TV and as the host of “NAACP Forum” on KSTP-TV.
Robin graduated from St. Paul Central High School and received a B.A. in communications from Howard University in Washington, D.C. “I remember before going to college Mahmoud said, ‘Robin, you have to go out there and get the knowledge, but you have to bring it back to the village.’ That’s one of the main reasons I came back home.”
Robin worked for nine years at Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) as executive producer of community affairs programming. She developed and managed local and national public affairs programming, documentaries, and community outreach initiatives, including national award-winning Don’t Believe the HYPE (Emmy), HOOP Dreams Reunion (NAACP Image Award nominee), HOOP Dreams/Chrysler HOOP Dreams Challenge (national educational and community outreach initiative), and From Corrections to Community, a documentary co-produced by residents of Redwing Correctional Facility.
In her position at TPT, Robin made a point to provide opportunities for youth of color to take their rightful place by working in all aspects of television production. “One of the things I have always tried to instill in young people is that if you walk with me, I want you to walk in extraordinary, to walk in excellence, to be able to recognize when an extraordinary opportunity is in your path. Just to prepare for it and not fear it.
“I have always told people that I expect you to be better than me, to go beyond me. It gives me great honor to step aside so that a young person I have walked with can stand in my stead — that is what it has to be about.”
She has every right to rest on her laurels, but it wouldn’t be characteristic of her. Robin is rooted in the values instilled in her by her mother, the late Patricia Ellen Frazier-Hickman. A longtime intimate friend of the family had observed that “above all, Robin is a devoted and loving daughter in memory of her late mother. She has learned valuable lessons from her mother’s wisdom which she religiously applies to her daily life.”
Her mother would often tell Robin and her siblings to take their rightful place and “‘be humble, but know your worth.’ Being humble means you don’t talk about yourself. But she began to push me to balance that. And as a woman of faith, the worth part is God’s worth, you being worthy to God, just walking and being human when you are raised to lean on that humility side.
“That’s why people think they know me, and they don’t know me. Yes, I am a 5’8” full-figured bold-voiced Black woman. I think a lot of people think because of my demeanor that I think that I am whatever, and I am really just a woman trying to love the skin she’s in and walk in that worth.”
She misses her mother deeply and sees her as the very essence of her being. “I know that she wants us to continue, all of her children, to walk in what God has called me to do, and walk in what she inspired and prepared me well to do. I am a woman who for the rest of my life will tell my mother’s story.
“I am at a moment where I feel God’s favor, and I am feeling the hand of my mother in almost everything I do. I have had an extraordinary life, but it started with a very extraordinary foundation as a child growing up here in St. Paul.”
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