Junior Shantela Hicks during a Saturday meeting in November. | Photo by Esther Jones

Redefining DIVA

Group of North Minneapolis school girls defy stereotypes and learn what it means to be a true diva.

By Esther Jones and Sarah Nelson

Sixteen-year-old Shantela Hicks sat in a folding chair early one Saturday morning in 2014, listening intently to her peers. Approximately 30 other junior high and high school girls had gathered in a North Minneapolis community center. They shared their struggles with low self-esteem, living without a parent and past contemplations of suicide. Feeling tense, she hoped no one would call on her.

“I gave advice but I really didn’t say anything because I don’t like to tell people what I’ve been through,” Hicks said.

A woman who helped facilitate the session noticed and pulled Hicks aside afterward. She assured Hicks it was okay to feel vulnerable and to share her feelings. Hicks broke down.

“I’m not the type of person who does that but when I express my story I get emotional because it’s just something I went through when I was little,” Hicks said.

She shared her struggles in coping with her father’s jail sentence and drug use. How she felt unloved when he prioritized drugs over Hicks, just one year old at the time. How his long-term absence took a toll on her emotions and self worth. How her feelings of unworthiness once lead to suicidal thoughts. After revealing her story, Hicks felt a huge burden lift off her shoulders.

“I’ve been through it, I’ve gotten over it and I’m moving on now,” Hicks said.

The woman who pulled her aside was Neda Kellogg, executive director of Project DIVA. Since 2008, Project DIVA has empowered school-aged girls like Hicks through academic, social, emotional, financial, health and wellness, and career coaching. The group’s mission is to equip girls coming out of high school to make informed choices about their future.

“Miss Neda,” as the girls affectionately call her, began Project DIVA as a complimentary class in a North Minneapolis charter school after noticing the students’ low performance in reading and math. The curriculum was such a success the girls asked for Kellogg to bring it back. To avoid after-school conflicts, the program was moved to Saturdays. From there, Project DIVA grew into a nonprofit organization open to the community and based in North Minneapolis.

“I’ve been through it, I’ve gotten over it and I’m moving on now,” Hicks said.

Finding a rationale and hands-on support for the organization were never a challenge, Kellogg said. Many volunteers understood the need for a foundation in girls’ lives and came on board. North Minneapolis, home to a diverse community and vibrant cultural history, has nonetheless felt the lingering effects of segregation, gun violence and poverty. According to Teenwise Minnesota, teen pregnancy rates are highest among young women of color in Minnesota. The rates for two common STIs are disproportionately higher among Black youth in Minnesota, according to data from 2014. Nearly 90 percent of North High School students qualify for free and reduced lunch. The location of the organization’s weekly meet-up is a 10-minute walk from the 4th Precinct and the spot where Jamar Clarke was shot in November.


Once she accepted the calling of Project DIVA outside of her job at Dunwoody, Kellogg’s life got busy.

“You have a lot of late nights where you’re birthing a company or organization,” Kellogg said.

But that hard work proved worth it every time Kellogg met with the girls.

“Being able to see girls heal or have that ‘Aha!’ moment was always the reason for, like, ‘okay we’re on the right path,’” Kellogg said.

Neda Kellogg, executive director of Project DIVA, supervises most Saturday meetings. Photo by Esther Jones.

To commemorate the pilot months of coaching and learning, the idea of a Project DIVA fashion show sprouted. The concept initially met some resistance. The word ‘diva’ has negative connotations and thus raised a few questions. Was being a diva all about physical beauty and attitude? Was outward appearance the sole focus of the project?

Kellogg disagreed.

“I’ve always grown up around some women who were super classy and so they were always divas to me,” Kellogg said.

To her, a DIVA is someone with Dignity, Integrity, Virtue and Availability.

She continued with the idea for her fashion show and in June 2008, three volunteers and 43 girls descended upon Suburban World Theater in Uptown, Minneapolis. The show focused on who the girls were becoming, resulting in a room of young women dressed as mechanics, singers and lawyers. Kellogg was surprised when she was approached and asked to provide extra chairs. Looking into the audience from behind the stage, she realized Project DIVA had packed the house.

The girls’ improved confidence, displayed throughout the show, was evident to the overflowing crowd of family and friends and Kellogg, who realized the great need for her organization.

“I really wanted to get people to understand these girls have a lot to give to the world. Like it’s not about just being cute, even though we are extra cute…It’s about where are they going with it.” Kellogg said.

From that point on, the fashion show evolved into an annual style show, that focused even more on careers while maintaining the style piece. This year, the show is on April 16 from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. located in the Lundstrum Center of the Performing Arts.

To qualify for Project DIVA, a girl must be in sixth through 12th grade. She comes into the program with an idea of who she wants to become, and receives a personal career coach. The coach and girl meet every month for a minimum of four hours. For Hicks, an aspiring criminal lawyer, the opportunity allows her to meet with a variety of judges and lawyers along with her career coach, also a local lawyer. As a child, instead of desiring to become a princess like her peers, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Now, at the age of sixteen, she is working to fulfill her lifelong dream of attending Harvard.

Hicks, an aspiring lawyer, shares her thoughts with her peers. Project DIVA has aided in her dream of attending Harvard University. | Photo by Esther Jones.

“I’m a person who likes to be challenged a lot. So I feel like Harvard will really challenge me,” Hicks said.

Hicks is currently enrolled in AP English at Osseo High School, and has participated in rigorous biology and English classes. As part of her Project DIVA academic coaching, she has set a goal to receive a score of 30 or higher on the ACT.

In addition to individual career coaching, the girls gather every Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for group coaching. Water, clementines, Greek yogurt and fresh berries are among the food choices served for breakfast each week. Girls are organized into age groups and assigned a consultant. Consultants volunteer their time to manage small-group discussions and to remind the girls to pay attention. The girls are expected to excel in public speaking, and are often asked to talk louder or avoid using filler words.

The girls brainstorm what they learned after an academic coaching session. | Photo by Esther Jones.

Respect is also of the utmost importance at Project DIVA meetings. When a girl is speaking, “one mic” is expected in the room, ensuring there are no other conversations. From September through April, each Saturday is dedicated to one of the five areas of coaching: fitness, black women in history, academic excellence, sexual health and image.

Mandatory parent meetings are designated for the third Saturday of each month. Parents receive separate coaching on topics such as finances and self-esteem. The organization is just as beneficial in helping families make connections with other families. These relationships often result in parents calling Kellogg for parenting advice.

“It’s a sisterhood. That’s really what it is. I’ve been over to their houses, they’ve been over to mine. We’ve done sleepovers. It’s all one big family now, all because of Project DIVA,” grandparent Mary Hall said. Hall drives her great-niece and 16-year-old granddaughter, JaRae Hall, to and from the North Commons community center every Saturday.

Mary Hall with granddaughter JaRae Hall, a member of Project DIVA. JaRae is set on attending college after visiting schools in Duluth, Wisconsin and North Carolina with Kellogg. She aspires to become an attorney. | Photo by Esther Jones.

Hall has seen her granddaughter, JaRae, become more set on going to college. JaRae has even gone on college tours to Duluth, Wisconsin and North Carolina. After every session, she and friends open up and share what they learned on the car-ride home, a rarity for teenagers.

In addition to coaching, girls are required to submit behavior and grade forms while completing community service hours. Kellogg and coaches often remind the girls it is their responsibility to control their learning and to understand their history. Goal-setting and vision boards aid the girls in planning their futures.

The organization’s success is clear in consultant Sanni Brown-Adefope’s eyes. Since enrolling her daughter NiiSa in the program, she has seen her become more open with communication.

“There are a lot of organizations that are saying they’re doing work in the community and then you get in there and they’re really not. This isn’t one of them,” Brown-Adefope said.

Brown-Adefope is one of the handful of consultants for Project DIVA. She is also a co-host for TV series “Candy Fresh” on SPNN.

Success is also seen in the organization’s alumni. Not one girl has been left behind, according to Kellogg. Every girl is sustaining herself, whether it’s through college, the workforce or starting families. The organization is seen as a lifelong program. Girls are always able to refer to their former cohorts of women for support in achieving their dreams of becoming pediatricians, midwives, actresses or teachers. Intimacy is key to the group.

“We know every girl. We know their family. We know their story, we know their situation and we know we’re able to actually affect a life,” Kellogg said.

After five years of working two full-time jobs, Kellogg resigned from her work in 2013 to focus solely on her organization. Since then, she has worked as a PCA, contracted with local school districts and done various other odd jobs in order to stay afloat without a salary. Her goal is to eventually cease working these side jobs and support herself through her work with Project DIVA. Because of a tight budget, the organization has largely benefited from contributions from generous donors.

“There are a lot of organizations that are saying they’re doing work in the community and then you get in there and they’re really not. This isn’t one of them,” Brown-Adefope said.

Raising funds is mandatory in order to fulfill Kellogg’s dream for Project DIVA in the future, which includes taking the program national and worldwide. Her vision consists of chapters of 30 girls all over the world, expanding her current primarily African-American group to include Latina chapters, Korean chapters and so on. Kellogg also envisions that school systems will adopt and align the Project DIVA curriculum with their own. She believes the career coaching compliments typical math, English and science studies. Teaching kids the importance of healthy support systems will empower kids to reach their full potential and achieve their goals, she added.

Girls and their consultants pose for a photo at the end of another Saturday meeting. | Photo by Esther Jones.

Sunlight streamed through the windows, reflecting off Kellogg’s pearl earrings. A girl snapped a quick selfie with her consultant while the rest of the table finished their lunch and discussed the latest trends in shoes, phones and fashion.

Smiling and leaning back slightly, Kellogg clapped her hands and shouted, “SHE IS WORTHY OF IT ALL.” It was statement, nearly inflected as a question waiting to be affirmed.

All the girls stood up and responded with a booming, “I AM WORTHY OF IT ALL.”

The young women who had spent the previous four hours healing and empowering each other recited their preamble. There was dancing. It was a celebration; with their hands up, cheering.

“I AM DIGNITY BY HAVING SELF-RESPECT FOR MYSELF WITHOUT THE MASK!”

Some merely repeated the words, mumbling and slurring the parts they hadn’t quite memorized yet.

“I AM INTEGRITY BY DOING THE RIGHT THING, EVEN WHEN NO ONE IS THERE.”

Others have uttered these straightforward sentences so many times it has become a personal anthem.

“I AM VIRTUE BY HAVING THE ABILITY TO BE OF GREAT WORTH.”

They could see a line of poetry from rapper Tupac Shakur painted on a canvas above one of the windows, talking about a rose that grew from concrete.

“I AM AVAILABILITY BY BEING THERE FOR ONE ANOTHER.”

This wasn’t a nursery rhyme. It was a battle cry.

“FOREVER I AM A WORK IN PROGRESS.”

“I AM A DIVA!”


If you are interested in donating or volunteering for Project DIVA, visit http://projectdiva.org/

If you are interested in attending the 2016 style show on April 16, ticket price and location can be found at: