Robin Hickman has been called a St. Paul "treasure." She's a social activist, a TV and film producer, and a long-time leader in the African American community.
But what makes Hickman most proud these days is her extensive multicultural doll collection, and how she uses it enhance the lives of others.
On this morning, Hickman wears a green turtleneck and black leather jacket. She's dressed one of her Barbies in miniature matching attire.
"Down to the gold earrings," Hickman laughs.
As an African American girl growing up in St. Paul, Hickman had a hard time finding anything but blond, blue-eyed Barbies. Her current collection is proof times have changed. Among her 300 dolls are Cambodian, Nigerian and Mexican Barbies, as well as a vast array of African Americans. Some come with natural hair. Others have tiny rows of braids that set off their vinyl cheekbones.
"I don't have children and I'm not married," Hickman said, "But in my doll world, Robin is married to Marcus. The Marcus doll is Capt. Sisko, Deep Space Nine [from] Star Trek. The bald version. And Robin and Marcus have a daughter and son, Autumn and Marcus Jr. My doll world is a little world I can control when mine is out of control."
At this point, some might roll their eyes. But Hickman doesn't mind. For this 49-year-old, dolls are an escape, especially in times of despair. Last year, Hickman lost her mother, whom she refers to as the love of her life. It was the dolls that kept her going on her darkest days.
"I did kind of keep the dolls out and just kind of held 'em," Hickman said. "There's power in holding dolls. And then I just found myself beginning to heal."
On a recent Wednesday morning at St. Paul's Battle Creek Middle School, Hickman addresses a class of 8th grade girls.
"So, lovelies, how you doing?" Hickman asks.
She unpacks three huge bags of ethnic Barbies and asks students to select dolls that mirror their own skin tone and facial features.
"Chloe's got her doll all posed up," Hickman observes of one of the students.
It's not every English class that incorporates Barbie dolls. Of course, not every English curriculum is developed by Robin Hickman.
With lots of reading and writing, the class meets state educational standards. But, teacher Kristy Pierce said, its secondary goal is to improve the self-esteem of struggling girls.
"So many of our girls, specifically girls of color, the self-esteem is so far underneath what people even think it is," Pierce said. "It's lower than low."
This course tries to address that through discussions on race, identity and societal pressures. For these girls — Asians, Latinas, African Americans — centering such conversations around dolls makes it easier to open up.
"If you can't love a doll that looks like you, how are you gonna love yourself?" says one student.
Precisely, Hickman says.
"It's amazing when you bring dolls in front of girls who have never seen dolls that look like themselves. It is so powerful," Hickman said."You hear them almost chanting, just one after another: 'That looks like me.' 'She looks like me.' 'There's me.'"
It'd be easy to argue that Barbie, regardless of her plastic skin color, still boasts a body of unrealistic proportions or that beauty standards shouldn't be set by toy companies. But the only thing that matters to these girls is knowing someone, somewhere decided their cultures are important enough to inspire a doll.
"When I was little, all I played with was little white dolls and none of 'em looked like me. I felt like I didn't belong in this world," one girl said.
"I couldn't find any dolls that looked like me," said student Ebonee Jackson. "They were pretty much light-skinned or white ones with long hair so it kind of hurt me because I thought that we don't exist. Because dolls pretty much represent people, and if there's not any black dolls that mean we don't exist."
It's crucial, Pierce said, that all girls see themselves reflected in history books and on movie screens and even lining the shelves of toy stores.
"For these girls, it's like, 'Oh my god. Somebody does care. That's me. That's who I am. I'm beautiful. I'm a doll,'" Pierce said.
"The healing from this doll journey has been incredible and I'm just so glad I can share it," said Hickman. "My mother always said, 'It's going to be those dolls. That's where you're going to really make your mark, with the dolls.'"
And, Hickman says, her mother was always right.