When I was young and my mom was mentally well, she talked to me a lot about life. She showed me her love through both actions and words, uplifiting my self-esteem and ensuring I was confident in the skin I was in. When I lost her to mental illness at age 13, I felt like my learning about life came to a screeching halt. In school in Omaha, they never taught me about the contributions made by people who looked like me, so I was puzzled about how I fit into society.
After leaving my dad’s home at 18, I was homeless for two years, couch hopping and trying to become stable. Eventually I began a journey of researching many generations of my global history, which led to me being more confident about myself. I found that there are countless contributions that slaves, descendants of slaves, and the children of descendants of slaves, have gifted to our country. I learned that the earliest bones found are that of a 3.2-million-year-old Black woman from Ethiopia.
Finding out more about my deep lineage has added to my self-esteem and self-worth. It enhanced the foundation of what my mom instilled in me when I was a child. It affirmed for me that I, too, can be the change I want to see.
As I grew into my adulthood, and began working with inner city girls on a more focused level at the charter school, Dunwoody Academy, I realized that these girls were feeling the same crisis of identity. They didn’t know how they fit in to a society that largely seemed to ignore who they were and where they came from. That also meant they lacked an understanding of why it was important for them to be in school.
I wanted them to know that I ‘saw’ them, and that things would be okay if they shifted their perceptions about life by taking time for themselves and being open to learning. To help them see how their academic, social, and emotional behaviors could lead to strong lives, I brought to them real-life examples of successful women who looked like them.
Today I am the founding director of Project DIVA (Dignity, Integrity, Virtue, Availability), a 10-month coaching and mentoring organization for Black girls from third to 12th grades. The mission is to guide girls to self-discovery without limits. We reintroduce girls of an economically challenged history to themselves and their potential.
How does it work?
The girls and their caregivers commit to the school-year program and its village concept. There are three levels of entry, through which we teach the girls that there are levels to life. Each stage embodies an educational and life experience unique to that developmental time in their lives. We give girls the platform to self-discover without limits, loving themselves enough to explore their own possibilities and advocate for help in reaching their goals.
My team and I have been doing this work for 11 years. We’ve worked with more than 1,500 girls through Project DIVA — our Saturday elite girls programming, girls groups in the school districts, and one-on-ones with girls that we meet along this journey. The girls we have worked with have been nothing short of brilliant and hungry for the cultural knowledge we share.
Khadijah Lamah is one of these girls. She has #BlackGirlMagic. When she came to Project DIVA in high school, she was quiet, yet articulate, about what she wanted out of life. Her personality was lighthearted, and she loved her sisters in the program openly and honestly, which made her an exemplary role model. Watching her tackle life as a teen, navigating the perils of school the way African-American girls must do, while working to stay true to her culture, was fascinating. Her accomplishments today (see below) do not surprise me at all.
I started at Project DIVA when I was in high school. I’m now a 24-year-old master’s degree student and I stay in touch with Ms. Neda and my DIVA sisters.
At Project DIVA, we attended seminars on financial literacy, physical and sexual health, self-identity and expression. I vividly remember sitting in the back of Ms. Neda’s car as we were driving to an event. We had such an intimate conversation about romantic relationships and marriage, and how we should present ourselves and our values when becoming involved with other people. I carry that conversation with me today.
I grew up a very quiet child. I possessed a lot of power and wisdom, but didn’t have the confidence to speak my mind. I had a DIVA sister who was the opposite. She was outspoken and embraced who she was. Her walk to self confidence taught me how to be proud and confident as a full-figured, dark-skinned woman.
When I initially became a DIVA, I thought every young Black woman I encountered would be like me, with similar stories and desires as me. I learned quickly how diverse we are as Black women, and how much we have to offer each other.
I recognize how much love and knowledge and support was poured into me. DIVA stood by me when I graduated from high school and college, and even today is helping me navigate this world. Today I am an educator, graduate studies student, contestant for the 50th Miss Black America and I am in the process of starting my own non-profit.
It is because organizations like Project DIVA existed for me, and because of women like Ms. Neda — available to support young women throughout every phase of our lives and careers — that I am successful. There are not enough ‘thank you’s’ in the world to show my appreciation.