The art of the sale – and diplomacy

Masako Takahashi, Marjorie Madfis and Akie Abe at Girl Again. Photograph by Georgette Gouveia.
A visit by Akie Abe, first lady of Japan, draws attention to job training for those on the autism spectrum at Girl Again in White Plains.

The most unusual doll shop in White Plains had a most unusual visitor recently — Akie Abe, the first lady of Japan.

Abe (AH bay), wife of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, was accompanied by Masako Takahashi — wife of Reiichiro Takahashi, the consul general of Japan in New York — along with members of the consulate and a security detail, as she toured Girl Again, a cozy, pastel-colored 750-square-foot space that sells donated, slightly used, reconditioned American Girl dolls.

But, as WAG discovered when we first wrote about the shop in March of last year, sales are not really the point. The shop — an arm of the nonprofit Yes We Can, founded by former IBM-er Marjorie Madfis — is really an opportunity for young women on the autism spectrum to acquire job skills as they learn how to rehabilitate, price, display, inventory and sell the dolls. Among the staffers whom Abe and Takahashi met were Maki, an American of Japanese descent who earned a degree from Manhattanville College in Purchase and Madfis’ daughter, Isabelle, who said, “What girl doesn’t dream of growing up to be a (doll) hairdresser at American Girl?” (The doll manufacturer is not affiliated with Yes We Can.)

The convent-school-educated Abe, who worked in advertising and as a disc jockey in Japan, has earned a reputation as an outspoken champion of minorities, including the LGBTQ community and those on the autism spectrum. (She appeared at a 2016 benefit for Autism Speaks, a leading advocacy organization.) 

“One of our customers is an attaché at the Japanese consulate in Manhattan and knew Mrs. Abe had an interest in disabilities and autism,” Madfis said. 

Soon Masako Takahashi was visiting with members of the consulate to prepare for Abe’s visit. On the big day, Abe leaned in, listening intently as Girl Again staffers described their duties. This was important as those on the autism spectrum, hyper-focused on routine, often have trouble interacting with others or adjusting to change.

“It’s this whole challenge of understanding the perspective of another,” Madfis said. “They can commit — and are afraid of committing — faux pas as they miss (social) cues.”

But there was no need to worry on this particular day. Abe and a beaming Takahashi were all graciousness as they had a private chat with Madfis about the intensity of training people on the autism spectrum and the challenge of integrating them more fully into the workplace.

Abe even purchased one of the dolls, which, along with companion books, are designed to teach 8- to 11-year-olds history and civics. The story arc of Abe’s purchase — Jess, the Girl of the Year doll in 2006 — is that of a girl of Japanese-Scottish descent who learns about environmental issues.

What Madfis hopes the world will learn from this diplomatic visit and the organization is that while not all with autism are Temple Grandin, who became a professor of animal science, they’re not necessarily Rain Man either.

“It’s a spectrum,” she said, one that includes people capable of work.

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