June 20, 2013 at 8:06 AM ET
A group of girls were chatting in Rob Robinson’s fifth grade classroom in PS 28 in Brooklyn when the special ed teacher overheard them talking about American Girl dolls. One of the girls mentioned a place girls can visit on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to purchase these dolls. At the store, a girl can also buy matching clothes for her and the doll and visit the salon where both can get their ears pierced and hair styled.
“I know about this place. Only white girls can go there,” one of the girls explained.
Robinson, who admits he didn’t know what an American Girl Doll was, believed that this girl was mistaken. Surely, the store is for people of all races.
“I just heard what you said—I think everybody goes there, not one specific group,” he said. And to prove his point he added: “We’re going.”
The girls stared at Robinson as if he were crazy.
He didn’t realize that American Girl Dolls—a doll matched to a historical era like Colonial America or the Depression—cost more than $100 and that a day at the store would be a significant investment—one he and his students couldn’t afford. About 80 percent of the students at PS 28 qualify for the federal free lunch program.
After recovering from sticker shock, he remained determined to show his students that they can go where they want and achieve their dreams. Robinson believes that his participation in similar programs as a child helped him become determined and success.
“Here [was] an opportunity to turn around the thinking of little girls when they are thinking of image,” he says.
To fund the trip, Robinson built a website, 21 Girls of Color to American Girl NYC, and approached his network for donations. He worried that people might not give. Meanwhile, the list of students kept growing. He started with seven girls, but ended with 27. He had to limit it so they could dine in the private area, which accommodates 40 (this included an entourage of Robinson, chaperones, a photographer, and security).
Despite his worries, the donations rolled in—in five weeks Robinson raised $14,000. He provided stylists to fix the girls hair and nails, a limo ride to and from the store, and a photo shoot for them. Each girl received a doll, an American Girl t-shirt, a bag, her picture on the American girl magazine, breakfast, and private dining at the café at the store.
“When they walked into the American girl place, they lost their minds,” says Robinson. “They walked differently, their shoulders were squared, and it was amazing to see that. And they believed they belonged there or anywhere else.”
American Girl company spokesperson, Stephanie Spanos, says this is typical at the store.
“We celebrate all girls. We’re thrilled to be a part of any girl's experience and make it memorable.”
While she notes the dolls are pricey, the books, which cost $6.95, make American Girl accessible to all girls and “educate and inspire imagination.”
Robinson hopes the girls understand they can achieve what they want through hard work and education. And, Robinson has another trip in the works to teach others this message. Next year, he plans to take 30 students of color to Washington, D.C., allowing them to travel by plane, stay in a swanky hotel, and visit the historical sites. And, he’s hoping that President Obama and his family will meet them.
“I think it will be a real win to see the first African American president,” he says. He thinks it will show his students that “they can still ascend to any level they want to.”