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At the Smithsonian| At the Smithsonian

At the Smithsonian| At the Smithsonian

Katrina Lashley

American Girl introduced the world last September to its new World by Us dolls. These dolls included Maritza Ochoa, a Latina soccer player, Makena Wilkins, a fashion lover, and Evette Peters, a rising activist living in Washington, D.C.’s east side of the Anacostia River. Maritza, Makena, and Evette, all of whom live in the capital, address important social issues such as racism and immigration.

I first heard about the dolls one year ago when the company approached me to be an advisor. They wanted to start an exciting new project to support environmental activism related the Anacostia River. They contacted me by email.

I was informed about the ongoing environmental work of the Smithsonians Anacostia Community Museum(ACM), American Girl wanted to know if I would be willing to share some research and documentation from the past years as well as review two manuscript drafts. Evette Peeters, a preteen, lives with her biracial family and is often tangled up by the Anacostia River. Evette uses her passion for activism to help heal the community and people she loves, creating new friendships, and repairing broken relationships.

Why This American Girl Doll Inspires Environmental Activism

The characters Maritza Ochoa, Makena Williams and Evette Peeters all live in the nation’s capital and work to address critical social issues including racism, immigration and environmentalism.

Courtesy American Girl

I didn’t need any introductions. I can still recall my first American Girl doll encounter. My mother took me to Barbados with her when she was eight. She had moved to New York for work and my mother left me there. I still remember the thrill of receiving a care package with the book Molly McIntire: a young girl who grew up on the American homefront during World War II. It was a book I enjoyed reading. After moving to the U.S. in 2011, that first book quickly grew into a collection. I spent hours poring through the American Girl catalog. After much begging and pleading with my mother, who was reluctant about paying almost $100 for a doll of Edwardian era, I was able to raise enough money to purchase Samantha Parkington.

Consulting on this project was a careful balance for me. I had to balance the nostalgia and childhood memories of a recently naturalized child with my adult professional and personal experiences. It was complex.

Public history work is characterized by ongoing negotiations between cultural institutions, the communities they serve, and one constant. We have to make difficult choices. These civic spaces reflect our histories and experiences. What way? Why is it important?

American Girl wanted to make it clear to its young audience that they were part of the bigger American story. That vision requires more accessible stories and role models in civic engagement.

Children boating on the Anacostia River

The Anacostia River flows from the Maryland suburbs to the mouth of the Potomac River in downtown Washington, D.C., and has long divided neighborhoods of color from the federal city’s power centers, where the nation’s leaders have lived and governed.

Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Susana Raab

ACM has maintained a close connection with its community for more than a century. The museum has been an active participant in helping communities understand and address the complex issues of identity, injustice, agency and helped its youngest visitors to see their place in building a better community.

The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, which was the first federally funded community museum in 1967, served as an extension to the community. It allowed visitors to explore their past and reflect on their present while working towards a better future. ACM’s subsequent work has been centered on this notion of the museum as a total service to its community.

Why This American Girl Doll Inspires Environmental Activism

The Anacostia Community Museum’s popular 2012 exhibition, Reclaiming the Edge: Urban waterways & civic engagement,” engaged with local neighborhoods in their ongoing efforts to protect the river.

Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Susana Raab

ACMs senior historian, ACMs, died in 2010, as the backdrop to the city’s restoration of Anacostia River. Gail S. LoweThe city decided to investigate the water body, which has been in many ways a psychological and physical barrier. The river flows from Maryland’s suburbs to the mouth at the Potomac River in central D.C. and has long divided neighborhoods of people of color from the federal cities that have been the power centers for the nation’s leaders. Many of the communities east of the river face challenges such as income inequality, food insecurity, and housing shortages.

Evettes’ story was written by Sharon Dennis WyethD.C. native, who grew-up east of the Anacostia River just a stones throw from Frederick Douglas house and across from her grandparents. Evette and Gran E (the character of Gran E) had a close relationship. Sharon has a deep affinity for the river’s ecosystem. My most consistent contact with nature was through the Anacostia River. The river was powerful, beautiful, and always changing. There.

The Anacostia made it easy to feel calm and also sparked my imagination. It was a reminder of the larger world. My family loved it too. There were special occasions when we took family pictures. My grandfather used the area to fish, and I’m sure my grandmother and him also swam in one tributary. My love for the Anacostia River and family lore made it into this book.

Lowes quickly became interested in how Anacostia had become the city’s Forgotten River. Urban WaterwaysThis became the museum’s bold next challenge. It explored the psychological, socio-economic, and political cost to those living along its banks. And it also explored the history and relationships of these communities. Wyeth says that Evette, the character in my story, feels helpless when she discovers that the river hergrandmother used to swim in is now polluted. She is able to find a group that is dedicated to cleaning the river and she invites them to help organize a cleanup event.

The museum’s popular 2012 exhibition was inspired by the same passion for the river that drove our first two years in research. Reclaiming the Edge: Urban waterways & civic engagement. Since then, workshops, community forums and a national symposium have been organized. A program for urban gardening has also been established.

Sharon Dennis Wyeth

Sharon Dennis Wyeth, the author of Evette’s story, is a D.C. native, who grew up east of the Anacostia River, a stone’s throw away from the Frederick Douglas house and across the alley from her grandparents.

Sharon Dennis Wyeth

“Young people may feel empowered when they read Evette’s story. They might also feel empowered knowing that there is a way they can help.”

I was struck by the extraordinary work of women in the United States, who have made contributions on topics such as environmental justice, advocating for urban parks, creating more pathways to STEM, and highlighting cultural practices as an example of environmental advocacy. What if these national activists were brought into conversation with local leaders?

With support from the Smithsonians, March 2018. American Womens History InitiativeThe Womens Environmental Leadership Initiative (WEL) was launched. With the goal of building capacity for next steps in environmental leadership and guided by the themes of mentorship, education, training and leadership, 60 participantsrepresenting more than a century of environmental leadershipgathered for a one-day summitThey met as professionals and as representatives of a cross-section of communities affected by and involved in environmental issues.

This powerful women-centered gathering helped Wyeths achieve the narrative goals Wyeths desired for Evette Peters. Evette is a shining example of the possibility for agency that was at its core of the summit. She loves her family and cares for the Anacostia places that have special meaning to them.

Leaders of the groups saw reason to hold a second meeting GatheringTheir work was facilitated by discussions, workshops, oral histories, and other activities. The publication, titled “Middle School Readers”, was published. Justice, Environmentalism, and WomenThis organization aims at empowering young girls.

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Women's Environmental Leadership summit

Seeking to empower young girls, the Women’s Environmental Leadership (WEL) initiative, launched in 2018 (above), developed the publication aimed at middle school audiences Women, Environmentalism, Justice.

Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Susana Raab

Wyeth says that the clean-up event I describe in the book, which featured Evette and her friends, was inspired by my knowledge about the current efforts in D.C. by large organizations as well community-based environmental groups to restore theAnacostia’s full health.

Wyeth had grown up in D.C., but it had been many years since she last lived there. ACMs research was what enabled her to get an update about the river and its community. Through the museums, I was able find information about organizations that are involved in restoring Anacostia, the goals they have for the river, and the progress made. An introduction to the neighborhood environmentalist. Dennis ChestnutACM also had a key link to him. Dennis has been working on behalf of the river since his childhood. It was both informative as well as affirming to have a conversation with someone who was walking the walk.

Wyethsees Evettes’ story is a model for younger readers who want to take action and find a common cause that can unite all people. A river can unite different places and people. Some of these young people might feel empowered after reading Evette’s story.

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