With the ‘Black Dolls Matter’ shop, a West Philly resident works to promote racial equity in children’s toys

A man opens boxes and smiles.

Black Dolls Matter Founder Mark Ruffin unboxes dolls that will be given away to children in need this holiday season. (Courtesy of The Philadelphia Tribune)

This story originally appeared on The Philadelphia Tribune. 

You might recognize Mark Ruffin’s work from Sesame Street where he worked as a doll maker and set designer, or maybe you’re familiar with him from his days as a music journalist and editor covering shows and artists for Chicago Magazine. But if you’re the parent of a small child, prepare to be familiar with Mark Ruffin, founder of Black Dolls Matter, the organization providing Black dolls and dolls of color to children and collectors.

West Philly resident Mark Ruffin found his passion for doll and puppet-making with the unknowing encouragement from his family and an interest in the arts.

“Around the early 70s when ‘Sesame Street’ hit, I saw the work of Jim Henson, and I was really inspired by those puppets. My father, who at that time was [an] art teacher, brought me home a book on simple puppet making and encouraged me to make my own puppets, which turned into me, building puppets, writing scripts, and performing puppet shows at the library up the street.

“Never did I imagine, that puppet building and my sewing lessons from my mom and my grandmother, would turn into me becoming a puppet builder at the Jim Henson Company, and primarily for Sesame Street.” Ruffin said.

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Now well into his career with two Daytime Emmys under his belt, his focus has shifted from making dolls, to putting them in the hands of kids they resemble. Inspired by the unrest following George Floyd’s murder and parents petitioning toy companies to expand the diversity of their merchandise, Mark created Black Dolls Matter. The organization’s goal is to provide racial equity in children’s toys that will allow for kids to see themselves represented in their dolls and action figures. This is something he knows is crucial for childhood development.

“I was speaking with one of the psychiatrists who began Babies First 2000 Days, and she said to me, it is so important to build self esteem in children of color starting at three months of age. That’s my mission, to empower our kids to see beauty within them, because that will have a direct benefit to society in the world at large.” Ruffin says.

The Black Dolls Matter website currently holds a plethora of different sized, shaped, and colored dolls for children and collectors of all ages.

Those old enough to remember the disheartening results of the infamous Doll test of the 1940s might have an understanding as to why Mark’s work isn’t just about selling dolls — but helping the next generation see themselves as worthy.

“When you look historically at Black dolls, how the topsy-turvy doll was used, because the enslaved child could not be seen nurturing a Black doll. So they would hide the Black side of the doll under the skirt. So, it’s just important to see where we are now.” Ruffin says.

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What better time to continue with this positive legacy than indulging in toys over the holiday season. Not only do black dolls matter, here’s where you can find them.” he says.

Over the past few months, Black Dolls Matter partnered with Perfect Place Real Estate, the Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association, and Baobab Sentre, Black Dolls Matter to give out dolls for children in need. The Black Dolls Matter team donated 260 dolls to clients of Gaudenzia, the region’s largest nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment provider on Thursday. The dolls went to children who are being served by Gaudenzia’s pregnant and parenting women (PPW) programs here in Philadelphia.

Mark is excited to be a resource for parents looking to provide their kids with dolls that span across both the culture and diaspora.

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