Babette Brown, Persona Doll Training founder: 1931-2019

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Babette Brown, founder of the Early Years Trainers Anti-Racist Network and Persona Doll Training, passed away after a short illness on 10 February aged 87.

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She was a tireless advocate for equality and justice in South Africa, in the United Kingdom and throughout the world.

'She has always been a marvellous friend and comrade . . . She shows you can be both steadfast and principled and at the same time radiate joy, humour and fun. Babette was a beautiful, brave person, easy to love, hard to say goodbye to . . .' Judge Albie Sachs

Babette was born in 1931 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In 1963, she left with her husband, Mannie Brown, and four children for exile in the UK. Her mother and her grandmother had also been exiles, arriving in Cape Town in 1903 on ‘poor-ships’ from Kovno, Lithuania escaping the Russian pogrom against the Jews. Babette’s mother lived in District Six for some years before moving to Johannesburg where she would marry Babette’s father, Lipman Kotkin, who worked in the coal delivery business. 

As a young South African who had fought against apartheid, Babette soon realised that there was a place for her in the fight against racism, sexism and classism that was so deeply embedded in the British education system and broader society and so began her lifelong task to tackle the roots of prejudice and discrimination in society.

Babette had worked in South Africa as a qualified nursery teacher and in London worked with early years children. Then, with four teenage children of her own, she managed to complete a BA degree in Education and Sociology and taught at Barnet College of Further Education for several years.

In 1985 she launched EYTARN – Early Years Trainers Anti-Racist Network, and remained a strong advocate for the anti-racism movement in the United Kingdom.

She was the recipient of the Guardian Jerwood award for charity work in 1997, and remained an active voice in the anti-bias and anti-racism movement by founding a new organisation, Persona Doll Training (PDT), in 2000 in the UK. PDT trains teachers and early years practitioners to use specially made child-size dolls, telling stories about the doll’s life and getting the children involved in solving problems. This supports the children to develop empathy and challenge discrimination.

The organisation is now active around the world, but particularly so in the UK and South Africa. In South Africa, one of the Persona Doll trainers, Carol Smith, set up a branch of Persona Doll Training in Cape Town with initial funding from the UK charity. Babette herself trained practitioners, teachers and advisers in using Persona Dolls and the importance of anti-discrimination in many other countries as well as all over the UK – Germany, Estonia, Austria, Iceland, Australia and New Zealand to name just a few.  She continued to lead and work for Persona Doll Training until she became ill in January this year.

Babette wrote several non-fiction books published by Trentham Press (now part of UCL Press) including Unlearning Discrimination in the Early Years, Combatting Discrimination: Persona Dolls in Action and Equality in Action, and with Billy Ridgers produced training videos to support practitioners in using the dolls in their classrooms and nursery settings. She often wrote articles for Nursery World magazine. She wrote and self-published a children's book, Separation, highlighting racism in apartheid South Africa.

She is survived by her four children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

'So many of us have loved her dearly, been inspired by her virtues, benefited from her friendship, kindness and generosity, and regarded her as a trailblazer in so many things – her stand against apartheid, racism and injustice of all kinds; her service to education and gender rights; her compassion for humanity. She is in our hearts and thoughts and will be remembered as a fine human being as a very dear friend. She was a gorgeous human being, infinitely kind and caring. She made a difference. She reminds me of this quote from Conrad Aiken: "Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind; quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave." Babette embodied all these attributes. Hamba Kahle Babette, dear friend.' Ronnie Kasrils – Former ANC Minister

'Goodbye dear Babette, We are not lucky enough to believe we'll meet again on the other side, but if we do we'll have a good laugh at our mistake.' Lorna Taylor – Artist and Niece

'She was always prepared to sacrifice for many causes, yet her children and grandchildren always came first. She was happy to acknowledge her faults and her mistakes. A complicated, multifaceted personality. The nearest to a selfless human being I have ever come across and probably ever will.' Peter Brown – Son

  • Babette did not want flowers but would love donations to be made to Persona Dolls Training UK. Bank: Handelsbanken. Account number: 50456120  Sort code: 40-51-62

Some of Babette's articles for Nursery World:

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