Last September, the American Girl Company introduced the world to its new “World by Us” dolls, Latina soccer player Maritza Ochoa, fashion lover Makena Williams, who traces her heritage to Kenya, and rising activist Evette Peeters, who lives in the Washington, DC neighborhood east of the Anacostia River. In the dolls’ accompanying novels, Maritza, Makena, and Evette, all of whom live in the nation’s capital, work to address critical social issues including racism, immigration, and environmentalism.
I heard about the new dolls a year ago when the company contacted me to participate as an advisor. “We are beginning an exciting new project to support social justice and environmental activism related to the Anacostia River,” they wrote to me in an email.
Having heard about the environmental work being done at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum (ACM), the American Girl team wanted to know if I would be willing to share some of the research and documentation done over the years and review two drafts of manuscripts. Pre-teen Evette Peeters lives with her mixed-race family and finds her life cut in half by the Anacostia River. Through her passionate activism, Evette strives to heal the place and the people she holds dearly, creating new friendships and mending strained relationships.
I didn’t need introductions; I still remember my first encounter with the American Girl doll experience. When I was eight, my mother left me with my grandmother in Barbados after moving to New York in search of a job. I remember the thrill of opening a care package she sent me containing the book about the experiences of Molly McIntire, a girl growing up on the American home front during World War II. I read it with delight. This first book became a collection after I moved to the United States a year later. I spent hours leafing through the American Girl catalog and after much pleading and pleading with my mother, who was hesitant to buy a doll that cost nearly $100, I raised enough money for my own doll from the Edwardian era, Samantha Parkington.
For me, consulting on the project was a careful balance. I weighed the nostalgia and memories of a naïve recently naturalized child against my personal and professional experiences as an adult, and the complexities and contradictions inherent in portraying and engaging with the American narrative. In other words, it was complicated.
A constant of public history work is the ongoing negotiations between cultural institutions and the communities they are meant to serve. We always make hard choices. What stories and experiences are reflected in these civic spaces? How? Why is this important?
American Girl sought to emphasize to its young audience the importance of being able to see themselves as part of the larger American story; and that vision requires more accessible stories, as well as models of civic engagement.
For more than half a century, ACM has maintained a deep connection with its surrounding neighborhood. The museum has been at the forefront of working with local and national communities to understand and address issues that underlie the complexities of identity, injustice and agency while helping its youngest visitors to understand their role in improving the community.
Founded in 1967 as the first federally funded community museum, the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (as the ACM was then known) served as an extension of the community, a civic space in which visitors encountered their past, reflected honestly on their present, while working towards a more equitable future. This notion of the museum in total service to its community has been central to all of ACM’s subsequent work.
In 2010, against the backdrop of the city’s restoration of the Anacostia River and development of its waterfront, ACM Senior Historian Gail S. Lowe decided to investigate this body of water, which has been, in many ways, a psychological and physical barrier in the city. The river, which flows from suburban Maryland to the mouth of the Potomac River in downtown DC, has long separated neighborhoods of color from the centers of power in the federal city where the nation’s leaders lived and governed. Some of the neighborhoods east of the river struggle with income inequality, food insecurity, housing shortages and environmental challenges.
The author of Evette’s story is Sharon Dennis Wyeth, a DC native who grew up east of the Anacostia River, a stone’s throw from Frederick Douglas’ house and across from his grandparents. Much like her characters, Evette and her grandmother, character “Gran E”, Sharon shared a close relationship with her “Nanna”. Sharon also has a deep connection to the river and its ecosystem. “The Anacostia River has been my most constant contact with nature. The river was powerful and beautiful; changing but always the.
“The Anacostia made me feel peaceful and also sparked my imagination. It was a reminder that there was a bigger world. My family also loved the river. We took our family photos there on special occasions. My grandfather used to fish there and I’m pretty sure he and my grandmother swam in one of the tributaries. This family tradition entered my book, as did my own love for the Anacostia River”.
Exploring how the Anacostia became the city’s “forgotten river” quickly became the focus of Lowe’s Urban Waterways project, which became the museum’s next bold challenge, exploring the psychological, social, economic, environmental costs and policies for people living along its banks, and dig into the history of these neighborhood communities. “When my character Evette discovers that the tributary her grandmother swam in has become polluted, she initially feels helpless,” Wyeth explains. “But when she discovers a group dedicated to cleaning up the river, she hires them to help organize a cleanup event.”
This same passion for the river fueled our first two years of research and culminated in the museum’s popular exhibition in 2012, “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement.” Ongoing work has since fostered the creation of workshops, community forums, a national symposium, an urban gardening program and a project newsletter.
I became aware of the dynamic work of women across the United States, making contributions on topics ranging from environmental justice, advocating for the creation of city parks, creating more STEM pathways, and highlighting the practice culture as a form of defense of the environment. What if we could get these national activists to talk to local leaders?
In March 2018, with support from the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, the Women’s Environmental Leadership (WEL) initiative was launched. With the aim of building capacity for the next steps in environmental leadership and guided by the themes of mentorship, education, training and leadership, 60 participants, representing over a century of environmental leadership, came together for a one-day summit, where they met not only as professionals, but also as representatives of an intersection of communities affected and engaged in environmental issues.
This powerful female-centric meeting helped foster the narrative goals Wyett was seeking for Evette Peters’ story. Through her love of family and concern for places along the Anacostia that have special meaning to them, Evette exemplifies the agency that was at the heart of the summit.
The group leaders saw the reason for a second gathering, and through discussions, workshops, and a series of oral histories, their work helped develop a publication for middle school audiences, titled Women, ecologist and justice, which aims to empower young girls.
“The cleanup event I describe in the book, featuring Evette and her friends with the rest of the team,” Wyett explains, “was inspired by what I had learned about current efforts at DC from on the part of large organizations as well as community environmental groups to restore the Anacostia to full health.
Even though Wyett grew up in DC, she hadn’t lived there for years. It was through ACM’s research that she was able to get an update on the river and its community. “The work of the museum alerted me to the organizations involved in the restoration of the Anacostia, the goals for cleaning up the river and the progress that had been made. An introduction to neighborhood environmentalist Dennis Chestnut, who had his own connection to ACM, was also key. Dennis has worked on behalf of the river since his own childhood. Having a real conversation with someone who was “walking the right path” was both informative and affirming.
Ultimately, Wyett sees Evette’s story as a model for young readers to take action and find a common cause that can unite all communities. “A river unites different places and different people. When they read about Evette’s story and how she is making a difference, some of these young people might feel empowered knowing that they too can make a difference.