Detroit activist Rev. JoAnn Watson helps develop American Girl doll, Melody

Detroit Event- Advisory board
Rebecca de Schweinitz, Denise Lewis Patrick (Melody author), JoAnn Watson, Phyllis Bond McMillan (late Julian Horace Bond’s daughter), Gloria House, Juanita Moore, and Tom Sugrue. Speaking at the podium is American Girl president, Katy Dickson. (Photo courtesy of American Girl)

Meet JoAnn Watson, native of Detroit, ordained minister, and former executive director of the Detroit NAACP, who was chosen by American Girl as one member of its esteemed six-member advisory board. They had the responsibility to ensure the historical accuracy and cultural authenticity of Melody’s story — a 9-year old growing up in Detroit during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, lifts her voice for equality and helps bring this significant time in America’s history to life for girls today.

Melody Closeup with Glasses-HR (1)
Melody Ellison, American Girl civil rights era doll (Photo courtesy of American Girl)

Here, Watson shares her backstory and why participation in this production was important to her.

Tell us a little about what you do in the community.
I am an activist. I am a pastor. I am a college professor. I am a radio/TV host. And, I serve on several local and national boards.

How did you end up serving as the executive director of the Detroit NAACP?
I had been working as assistant executive director of the YWCA of the USA in NYC from 1987 to 1990, directing the Office of Racial Justice founded by Dr. Dorothy I. Height, and the YWCA as a Christian movement, when a national recruiting firm contacted me to advise that my name had emerged as a top candidate for the Detroit NAACP executive position. I found it more than amusing that a native of Detroit, who had formerly served as a volunteer for the Detroit NAACP, was being recruited by a national firm for a post in my own hometown.

When did you first feel called to ministry?
As a child.

Why is it important for churches and especially church leadership to be involved with the community?
Churches must respond to the barrier-breaking love of God as prophesied in Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of The Lord God has anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek, to mend the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to open the prisons to them that are bound, to comfort those that mourn …”

What is the most pressing need of our community?
Economic liberation, reparations, self-determination

Are there any challenges that come along with being so involved?
Yes, but I have been mentored by Coleman Young, Rosa Parks, C.T. Vivian, Dick Gregory, Imari Obadele, Dorothy Height, Chokwe Lumumba, and Reparations Ray Jenkins-among others; so my choices were: Organize, Organize, Organize!

What advice to people who fear leadership or service?
Giving back is the price we pay for our time on Earth. Somebody fought for us, resisted terrorism for us, sacrificed for us, died for us.

What is the driving force of you ministry?
Our God is an awesome God!

What were your contributions to the American Girl advisory board in the development of the doll, its newest BeForever character, Melody Ellison and her story?
I shared childhood memories about my family, the Black church, the impact of the Motown Music Industry, school, community; and my participation in Detroit’s Walk to Freedom in June ’63 as a 12-year-old with my grandparents.

Why was it important to you?
I love Detroit. I love its people, heritage and culture. I consciously sought to infuse authenticity in the doll’s “persona” and the narrative that would represent my beloved city.

Yvette Caslin
Yvette Caslin

I'm a writer, image architect & significance marketer. Love photojournalism, creative expression & originality.

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