Celebrating 20 Years of Camp Diva Leadership Academy

Camp Diva Leadership Academy is marking its 20th anniversary this summer! In over two decades of serving Black girls, we have learned a lot. We’ve learned how to listen, how to create safe and brave spaces, and how to support, play, and have a good ole time to celebrate Black girls as they transition into a new school year every summer. 

Camp Diva History

Camp Diva wasn’t initially founded as a camp focused on Black girls. It quickly transitioned into a culturally affirming Black girl program after our CEO, Angela Patton, realized the immense needs in her community. 

“When I had the vision to start a girl program, I was working for ART180. One of the things that struck me was the lack of participation from the girls in the program. The boys were very active and engaged, and the girls usually needed more attention. It shook me to see the differences between the boys and the girls. I wanted to hear more from the girls and felt they needed something specific for them. I wanted them to know that I noticed them and wanted them to feel acknowledged. They were holding back who they truly were and not getting what they needed,” – says Sistah Angela

What did they need? A space of their own where they could really express themselves and build confidence. That was the genesis of Camp Diva. The program was open to all girls with the vision of giving girls a voice. It was centered on building self-esteem, self-discovery, creating a sense of self-worth, and navigating the transition into womanhood armed with a set of skills. The founding principles are still in place today but with a focus on the needs of Black girls. 

“After a few months of trying to get the program off the ground, I faced racism and sexism. The rejection was unbelievable until I started to reminisce on how these rejections were the same as what I heard and experienced in my middle and high school years. I wanted to put an end to the barriers I faced, which led me to answer the call to be unapologetic about centering Black girls in my hometown.”

Camp Diva was named after a girl in the community named Diva, which means ‘divine goddess.’ 

“After my dear friend Clover Smith lost her daughter from a firearm accident in a relative’s home while Clover was working her second job trying to make ends meet. This tragic loss became a triumph for other girls in the community and gave Clover an opportunity to mentor and keep Diva’s memory close to her. Diva’s name resonated with me after I heard Pastor Watson at St. Paul Baptist church read her eulogy. He shared the meaning of her name and how God is in all of us. I immediately thought that the girls that I wanted to support should know they were divine and just needed guidance, support, and nurturing.”

Angela made flyers with a picture of her on them (she didn’t have a logo at the time), and went all over the place to recruit girls. But an interesting thing was happening as she went from neighborhood to neighborhood: many of the white mothers she talked to weren’t interested in sending their daughters to camp, they offered up their daughters as volunteers. Even though their daughters were the same age as the group she was trying to recruit. They would tell her, ‘My daughter needs volunteer hours, they could come really help those girls.’ Black parents, however, were ready to sign on. They saw the value of the program and thanked me for starting it. 

“From these experiences, I took a moment to process how to best move forward and I knew we needed camp that honed into what Black girls needed. I felt confident that I could pull it off,” says Sistah Angela. 

So naturally, the very first camp was all Black girls. That’s when Sistah Angela realized the multiple barriers Black girls face growing into womanhood and beyond. A lot of them could not afford the program, they had transportation barriers, there were a lot of cultural awareness barriers, and they were struggling to navigate who they were. She saw what their schools lacked. She saw parents trying to make ends meet. She started seeing all the systemic issues that we talk about today, and she decided it was her calling to make a change. 

“Other girls don’t have these same barriers; so I dug deeper. I got connected to Dr. Faye Belgrave, who wrote a book about African American girls and the stereotypes they face. She also created a curriculum called The Sisters of Nia that I fell in love with. Although my parents kept me active and engaged growing up, no one had ever said those things to me. The things she wrote about were unheard of growing up. We were taught to not ruffle feathers or speak up to adults and to appease white people so we didn’t have problems. Although I understood the protective factors, I refuse to allow it to be my story – or any Black girl who participated in Camp Diva’s story.”

I kept reading and researching. I learned more about what Black women have endured for centuries. It made me realize that it was time for Black girls to have a program and support system specifically designed to address their unmet needs,” explains Sistah Angela.

Camp Diva has grown and evolved ever since, from borrowing space to renting space to finally purchasing a building and calling it our own. What started simply as Camp Diva Leadership Academy, a summer program for Black girls, has since merged with Girls For A Change, which now offers Camp Diva and a ton of other programs. 

Camp Diva: the story behind the name

Camp Diva Leadership Academy is in honor of Diva Mstadi Smith-Roane, who died in a firearm accident at the age of 5. Diva and her mother Clover Smith (who has also passed) were an important part of the community, and Camp Diva would not exist without both of them. Diva’s mother was a fashionista and passionate about seeing and celebrating the character within each girl. There are a few Camp Diva traditions that came from her. First, the wearing of white at the Closing Ceremony was a request she had of us that we gladly honor every year. To Clover, white means a new beginning. It signifies strength, growth, and awareness. It’s

representative of honoring and celebrating girlhood. In addition to the wearing of white, we also honor each participant with their “Diva Attribute,” a name representative of their character. 

Camp Diva Leadership Academy is where we explore our passions, develop crucial skills, learn the power of sisterhood, and get ready for a new school year. Girls go on field trips, have new experiences, learn from community leaders, and gain entrepreneurial skills through the popular Market Day event.

As we get ready for our 20th year of Camp Diva, we’re asking the community to honor and celebrate our longevity and sustained commitment to Black girls.

Celebrate 20 years with a $20 monthly commitment

Join our GFAC Sustainers with a $20/month commitment to our Annual Fund. Instead of contemplating the right time of year to give a big gift, you can designate and schedule your contribution to be given in smaller, automated, monthly payments through our giving platform.

Make this year’s gift a “Birthday” gift to help us sustain our culturally affirming programs.