FAIRFIELD — Nelson Mandela got one. So did actor Danny Glover, as evidenced by pictures in the Fairfield home of Darla Davenport-Powell.
But Davenport-Powell wants the children of the world to have her Niya doll.
“I see children are being fed unhealthy messages on TV and through music,” she said. “I think their innocence is being taken away. I think we need to keep their innocence as long as we can.”
The idea for the ethnic doll was borne out of need. When Davenport-Powell had her first child, a daughter, almost 29 years ago, she couldn’t find books or toys that reflected the family’s culture.
So she wrote a book, “Here Comes Niya.” Niya is also the name of her daughter.
“I always wanted to capture the world through the eyes of a child,” Davenport-Powell said.
Niya does that, Davenport-Powell said, calling Niya “an ambassador for all children,” encouraging them to have fun and learn.
In 1991, the Niya doll made its debut. She spoke Swahili, Spanish and English. Japanese has been added since then.
Media coverage attracted attention. Davenport-Powell set up an assembly line in her basement, where family and friends helped put shoes and socks on the dolls.
After a wonderful Christmas season selling Niya to specialty stores and via mail orders, Davenport-Powell learned her manufacturing company was selling defective Niya dolls, which were making their way to the store shelves.
“That’s when we parted ways,” Davenport-Powell said.
With no manufacturer or financing, she began taking her product directly to retailers.
In 2000, with the help of a toy company, she got Niya on the shelves at Kmart for the holiday season. However, the relationship with the company began to wane.
Davenport-Powell’s big break came in 2006, when she lined up at 5 a.m. to pitch Niya to the TV show “American Inventor.”
She made it into the Top 12 and was given $50,000 to further develop Niya. During that time, she found the voice for Niya and added another five friends to join the doll in her world travels.
While she didn’t get the $1 million top prize, Davenport-Powell said she made contacts and got worldwide exposure.
Six years later, she’s developing more ideas, including an e-book for Niya, set to launch next month.
Niya visits toy fairs and casting calls, in hopes of starring in her own animated series.
And, she’s currently on the “get on the shelf” website where, beginning March 7, people can cast their votes for toys they would like to see carried by Walmart.
The link for Niya is http://www.getontheshelf.com/product/1544/The-Niya-Doll.
Debbie Behan Garrett, who lives in Dallas, has collected black dolls for more than 20 years and wrote “Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting and Experience the Passion.”
She’s also written two other books on black dolls.
“Along with educational attributes, Niya teaches diversity,” Behan Garrett wrote in an email to the paper. “Formerly a baby doll, Niya has evolved into a young girl and can capture interest from young girls and teens whose doll interest has not yet faded.”
Niya’s new pals have been a good step, Behan Garrett said.
“The addition of friends representing other cultures/countries is also appealing to people,” Behan Garrett wrote.
She believes there is a need for ethnic dolls, writing that her hope is for more artists and manufacturers to realize the need.
“Not just any black dolls will do,” Behan Garrett wrote. “Dolls as adequate representations of black people are, and always will be, in demand for culturally conscious collectors and parents who want their children to see themselves in a positive light through their playing things.
“When made as positive reflections of the people they represent, black dolls do and will sell. The only black dolls that do not sell are those that are not true representations of black people, those that are not competitively priced and those that are not made.”
Davenport-Powell said she can’t give up on her dream.
“My mind is creating a mile a minute,” she said.
Niya Cotton, Davenport-Powell’s daughter, is now a mother herself to a 6-year-old son.
On the 20th anniversary of the Niya doll, she wrote about her “double life” on her blog, In it, she shares that by day, she went to school, dance classes and choir rehearsals. At night, she shrunk several feet, spoke three languages and became a best friend to thousands of girls across the country.
Cotton said it’s an honor to have a doll named after her, especially one that does “such wonderful things.”
Like her mother, Cotton said she’s surprised the doll is not sitting on store shelves.
“Perhaps it’s just the plight of being a trailblazer,” Cotton said.
You can learn more about the Niya doll at http://www.niyakids.com.
Reach Amy Maginnis-Honey at 427-6957 or [email protected]