When Neda Kellogg was a little girl, it seemed like she had a perfect life with the perfect parents. Then her parents divorced when she was seven. When her mom had a nervous breakdown (and was later diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia), Neda moved in with her dad and stepmom, which she describes as “a living hell.” She only talked with her mom twice during her middle school years and not at all in high school.
Neda was lonely and confused, “like a functioning addict,” with no close friends, despite her involvement in many clubs to escape her rocky life at home. What struck her most at that time, though, was that although she had a huge extended family, no one checked in on her or her brother. She was hurting so deeply, yet no one ever acknowledged what was going on in her life. As an adult, she wanted to do all she could to prevent girls from feeling like she did. And so Project DIVA was born.
Neda founded Project DIVA (Dignity, Integrity, Virtue, Availability) in 2008 as a holistic approach to coach and mentor black girls ages 11-18 in North Minneapolis, and she’s now working to take the program both national and international.
Project DIVA provides girls with the tools to navigate challenging life situations and develop positive life goals through an intensive, 10-month, weekly coaching program. Neda explains that the main purpose of Project DIVA is empowering girls to have a bright future, and to break the domino effect of multi-generational poverty.
The DIVAs are now such great role models that their younger sisters begged for a group of their own, so Neda formed the Dolls for 20 girls per year in grades 1-5. The younger group meets twice a month and is run by parent volunteers one week and community volunteers the other week.
Thirty girls are accepted to Project DIVA each year, with current girls given the first option to re-enroll for the following year. When a girl starts with the program, Neda and the other coaches conduct a home visit and family interview with the girl and her entire family, including siblings, so both the Project DIVA team and the family can hear how the girl is feeling about her life and what her goals are. The families are key, as the program focus is on the importance of families to build communities and overcome poverty.
Project DIVA is volunteer-driven, with coaches who are all professionals with their own followings in their respective fields. The girls meet every Saturday of the school year. (That’s right, the girls meet every Saturday morning, so they often forego slumber parties or bring their friends with them to meetings.) Each week focuses on a different pillar of development: career readiness, academics, emotional, physical, financial, and social health.
Most meetings are held at the North Commons Community Center, where the Minneapolis Park Board has granted the group exclusive access to the building on Saturdays, for which Neda is incredibly grateful. The second week of each month is their black history and Toastmasters meeting, where the girls present a speech on black women who inspire them, either from their family, community, or history.
The third Saturday is parent day at Project DIVA. There is no agenda, just time to talk. The parents share their thoughts and the girls listen, and then the girls share and the parents listen. Some weeks, the coaches have to switch up the scheduled program to cater to immediate needs and concerns of the girls (ie: negativity in the media, fears, social concerns, family situations) that need to be discussed to help the girls deal with life. The coaches never want a schedule to make them miss a teachable moment.
The fourth Saturday is the social/etiquette session held at the Art Institute in downtown Minneapolis. The girls learn career readiness skills such as networking, understanding the work environment, and the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. After the class portion of the meeting, the coach then hosts an etiquette lunch for them.
Each girl is matched with a community mentor in their desired career field who meets with them for four hours per month. For instance, when one girl stated her desire to enter the FBI, Neda found a black female FBI agent locally who could mentor her. As the girls really get to know women who can truly relate to them and understand their history and challenges, they are empowered to reach for their goals and realize that they can do anything they’re willing to work for.
Neda jokingly describes herself as “just one of the girls.” She has had to deal with many of the struggles facing the girls she mentors in Project DIVA, and she wants to equip the girls with the life skills she didn’t have after finishing high school.
At 18, Neda left her father’s house and couch hopped until she was 21, when a cousin invited her to live with her. Neda’s cousin taught her how to pay bills and essentially be an adult. Eventually, Neda’s mom moved into the cousin’s house as well, and Neda looked forward to rebuilding a relationship with her mother.
Neda was encouraged that her mom seemed normal, and the two of them got their own apartment. It was not long, however, before Neda realized that her mom was still very sick. She became her mom’s caregiver and guardian, and although her mother stayed in Omaha when Neda moved back to Minneapolis, Neda often drives to Nebraska to manage her mother’s care.
Neda has an amazing relationship with both of her sons’ fathers as well. As a working single mother in Minneapolis, Neda and her two sons eventually decided it would be best for them to live with their respective fathers in Omaha. “They have the two best daddies in the world,” and they all work together as a team. Her sons are now 21 and 15, and Neda says, “It’s the coolest feeling to be open with our families and be one big village.”
Neda describes her sons, “Lavone is my favorite oldest, and Trenton is my favorite youngest!”
Ignoring the distance, her kids’ needs always come first. Neda was always a room parent for the boys, and attended every performance and party. She checks in with them often, and the moment she senses any concern from either son about her not being there, she is in the car and on the road to see them in person, regardless of what is on her schedule.
She says, “I can identify with many of the girls [in Project DIVA] because each time I navigate a new situation with my mom or my sons, I turn back to the girls and teach them how to deal with similar situations that might occur in their own lives.”
As Neda has spoken to people about scaling Project DIVA, some have suggested expanding to have DIVA groups of various cultures and ethnicities, but Neda is firm on her platform, “I’m proud for Project DIVA to be a black girls group, and I think it’s important to have that representation. I want the world to know that black girls are as important as other girls, but there are very few spaces that black girls can just be themselves.”
Over the years, Neda has seen that the girls who come through her program are healthier, prouder, and more settled into who they are. She is living proof that when a girl knows who she is and what she wants out of life, she knows how to present herself to the world and how to prioritize life’s challenges. Neda’s ability to mentor the girls in Project DIVA and help them through some of life’s most challenging years make her much more than “just one of the girls.” She is definitely a DIVA of the best sort.
Do you love what Neda is doing with Project DIVA as much as we do? Check out the Project DIVA website to learn more or to donate. They are also in need of a permanent home in North Minneapolis to have weekday sessions, as well as a volunteer accountant. And Project DIVA always needs black men and women with family values to be paired with specific girls to mentor and create a close, guiding relationship with them and their families. If you or someone you know can help in any way, please contact Neda and her team through their website.