A new environmentalist for the next generation is a doll. 

Sharon Dennis Wyeth, 73, and Evette, the American Girl doll whose story she wrote, posing in front of the Anacostia River, which is part of the doll’s backstory and Wyeth’s childhood in D.C.
Sharon Dennis Wyeth, 73, and Evette, the American Girl doll whose story she wrote, posing in front of the Anacostia River, which is part of the doll’s backstory and Wyeth’s childhood in D.C. (Sims Wyeth)

She’s a D.C.-based American Girl doll. And she’s making history.

Even I — a mother of boys uninterested in dolls, who went “whew” every time one of her mom friends booked a pricey party at the American Girl Cafe or scrambled to get one of the exclusive editions — am excited about this doll.

This doll is not a lobbyist, a senator or a suffragist — roles to be expected in the popular toy line that teaches women’s history and accomplishments with elaborate backstories and books to make the (expensive) doll thing more palatable.

First of all, Evette is biracial, one of the first in the American Girl universe (they had a special, one-year-only Irish-Japanese doll in 2006) and one of few biracial dolls on the market.

Katrina Lashley, program coordinator for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, helped write a book about one of the newest American Girl dolls. The doll is biracial, lives in D.C. and is an environmentalist working to save the Anacostia River. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
On May 19, 2017, debris floats along the D.C. yards park docks as local officials announce two new skimmer boats designed to help clean the Anacostia and Potomac rivers by skimming floating trash and debris off the surface. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

And her persona and story were created by two real-life Washington women who have deep emotional and personal ties to the Washington that the rest of the world rarely hears about.

It’s a delightful story.

And it really began back in 1949, when Washington’s African Americans were booed and harassed out of the city’s newly desegregated swimming pools. And many folks just went back to swimming in the river.

When she didn’t feel welcome at the city’s lunch counters, she remembered her family retreating to the Anacostia’s shores to relax and recreate. Her grandfather fished. They took family photos. She saw the river most days when she was at Anacostia High School.

And after she graduated in 1966 and went on to Harvard University and a career as a prolific author of children’s books, she left the river behind in her childhood memories.

She lives in New Jersey now and got an interesting assignment: American Girl wanted her to write one of the stories for a line of three new dolls, all based in D.C.

“I have never written about an environmental theme, but as I was narrowing the theme down, I instantly thought of the Anacostia River. It was such a positive part of my childhood,” she said.

But then she caught up with the long struggle over pollution and conservation of her beloved river.

“I never thought of the river as needing anything at all,” Wyeth said. “The river was like a grown-up — always there. It took care of you.”

And the story flowed. The girl, Evette Peeters, would be a symbol of our changing city, the daughter of a White man and a Black woman. The family’s cultural conflicts are part of the book, “The River and Me.” And, as she works to unify her divided family, Evette becomes part of the generation that will help care for the river.

Wyeth used her own childhood in D.C., the stories of her parents and grandparents to unfold the history of the river and what it meant to Black Washington. But she needed an expert on the river.

That’s how she met Katrina Lashley, who is pretty close to being a real-life Evette. Lashley, 43, works at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum and helped create the fascinating Urban Waterways exhibit on the relationship between city people and their rivers.

She grew up in Barbados — where she had two American Girl dolls, Molly and Samantha — and took for granted her access and relationship to water.

When she came to D.C. as a graduate student, she was surprised at how the relationship between the city and its river had diminished. For her, access to a clean and healthy waterway is a human right.

“It’s about quality of life and our right to live a life of dignity and health,” Lashley said.

Every person — no matter their race, class, ability or ethnicity — should be able to easily get to the shore of a river, pond, lake or ocean and exhale, she said. And as she looked at concrete cities, closed parks and increasingly indoor lives, she saw that access was shrinking in America.

So it made perfect sense to work with Wyeth to give American girls the idea that her childhood — where she could go to a clean waterfront every day — is normal. And they deserve that, too.

2021-11-02T21:38:33+00:00November 2nd, 2021|

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