A mother who started a doll business so her daughter could have a doll that looks like her says ‘open’ discussions about race should continue after Black History Month.
Olivia Thompson, 32, from Leeds, set up doll company Akila Dolls in 2020 – which makes diverse and disabled dolls – because of her daughter Amira, 10, who is mixed race and has ADHD and autism.
On a shopping trip in November 2019, Ms Thompson said her daughter got upset that all the dolls seemed to look alike, and nothing looked like her – and that’s how Akila Dolls was formed .
The first prototype was a doll called Bessie, based on the first female aviation pilot, Bessie Coleman.
“I want my dolls to be educational. So the concept is that each doll will be named after a character from the story and I tried to choose people from the story that we don’t tend to know at school,” Ms. Thompson at the PA News Agency, during Black History Month, which takes place in October in the UK.
She added that she wanted her first doll to be based on Bessie Coleman because she had a “fascinating” story.
“She was the first black female aviation pilot and she had to go to France to learn how to be a pilot because she couldn’t do it in America because she was a woman and she was black.
“She also had to learn to speak French and I think it’s such an important story to tell young people, especially girls, and to show them this fantastic figure who had to overcome so many obstacles to achieve her dream and she did it.”
Ms. Thompson also hopes to expand the business to include dolls of children with disabilities and to include male dolls as well.
She said it’s important for toy brands to include the communities the dolls are meant to represent in the design process, which she tries to do with her business.
“It’s important to get people’s opinions because they’re the ones who are going to buy the dolls and they’ll have children represented through those dolls,” she said.
“Because I want to give them something they deserve to have and something they should have had a long time ago.”
Her daughter was also involved in the process, witnessing how the dolls “come to life” starting as a drawing and then becoming a 3D illustration.
“It’s good to see her little ideas come to life and she always says to me, ‘Mom, we should do this’, and it’s good that at a young age she has this passion and drive and she want to get so involved,” Ms. Thompson said.
“And it’s good for her to have something that represents her culture and what she looks like.”
Ms Thompson added that she also travels to Amira’s school to work on projects to make the environment as inclusive as possible.
Representation in the media is something that Ms Thompson says is “extremely important” for children.
“If children don’t see themselves represented in the media, and represented in a positive way, it affects their self-esteem, it affects the way they present themselves and think, ‘I can’t do this.’
“When I grew up in the 1980s I was a mixed race kid – my mum was black Caribbean, my dad was white British – and I grew up watching TV, playing with toys and reading books where I didn’t see anyone representing me or my Métis family.
“I started thinking, is there something wrong with my home environment? So for young people, it’s important that they see themselves in a positive light.
Although she noted there had been “steps in the right direction” in terms of media representation, through shows like Strictly Come Dancing including Rose Ayling-Ellis who is deaf, she said change had to still happen.
As Black History Month draws to a close, Ms Thompson said one of the biggest takeaways should be that ‘we shouldn’t be discussing race just for a month’.
“We need to educate ourselves, be open and ask questions, and the black community should celebrate what we have done for this country and be proud of it.”