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Doll company creator wants ‘open’ talks about race to continue past October

Olivia Thompson next to a doll from her company – Akila Dolls (Olivia Thompson/Akila Dolls)
Olivia Thompson next to a doll from her company – Akila Dolls (Olivia Thompson/Akila Dolls)

A mother who set up a doll company so that her daughter could have a doll that looked like her has said that “open” discussions about race should continue to take place past Black History Month.

Olivia Thompson, 32, from Leeds, created doll company Akila Dolls in 2020 – which makes diverse and disability baby dolls – because of her daughter Amira, 10, who is mixed-race and has ADHD and autism.

While on a shopping trip in November 2019, Ms Thompson said her daughter got upset at the fact that all the dolls seemed to look alike, and nothing like her – and so, Akila Dolls was formed.

The first prototype was a doll called Bessie, which was based on the first female aviation pilot, Bessie Coleman.

A doll from Akila Dolls (Akila Dolls)

“I want my dolls to be educational. So, the concept is that every doll will be named after a figure in history and I tried to choose people in history that we don’t tend to learn about within school,” Ms Thompson told 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 to become a pilot because she couldn’t do it in America because was a woman and she was black.

“She also had to learn to speak French and I think it is such an important story to tell young people, especially girls, and show them this fantastic figure who had to overcome so many hurdles to achieve her dream and she did it.”

Akila Dolls infographic (Akila Dolls)

Ms Thompson also hopes to expand the business by including dolls that represent children with disabilities and to also include male dolls.

She said that it is important for toy brands to include the communities that the dolls are meant to represent in the design process, which she tries to do with her company.

“It is important to have people’s advice because these are the people that are going to be buying the dolls and they will have children represented through these dolls,” she said.

“Because I want to give them something they deserve to have and something they should have had a long time ago.”

Woman working on a doll
Putting the dolls together (Akila Dolls)

Her daughter has also been involved in the process, witnessing how the dolls “come to life” by starting off as a drawing and then becoming a 3D illustration.

“It’s nice to see her little ideas come to life and she’s always telling me: ‘Mummy, we should do this’, and it’s lovely that at her young age, she’s got this passion and drive and wants to be so involved”, Ms Thompson said.

“And it’s nice for her to have something that represents her culture and what she looks like her.”

Ms Thompson added that she also goes into Amira’s school to work on projects to make the environment as inclusive as possible.

Representation in the media is something that Ms Thompson said is “massively important” for children.

“If children do not see themselves represented in the media, and represented in a positive way, it affects their self-esteem, it affects how they seem themselves and think: ‘I can’t do this.’

“When I grew up in the 1980s, I was a mixed-race child – my mum was Black Caribbean, my dad was white British – and I grew up watching TV shows, playing with toys and reading books where I didn’t see anyone that represented me or my mixed-race family.

“I started to think, is there something wrong with my home environment? So, for young people, it is important for them to see themselves in a positive light.”

While she noted that there have 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 that change still needs to happen.

As Black History Month draws to a close, Ms Thompson said that one of the biggest takeaways should be that “we should not discuss race solely across one month”.

“We need to educate ourselves and be open and ask questions, and the black community should celebrate what we have done for this country and be proud of that.”