Lateefah Simon 1977–
Lateefah Simon's work as an advocate for disadvantaged teens in San Francisco brought her to the attention of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awarded her one of its famous “genius” grants in 2003. The 26-year-old was one of the youngest Americans ever to win a MacArthur fellowship, and at the time she was also the oldest employee at the Center for Young Women's Development (CYWD), a San Francisco community group designed for and run by its target group of at-risk young women. Simon joined the organization as an outreach counselor during a period when she had dropped out of high school and was working at a fast-food restaurant. She has since gone on to head a notable civil rights advocacy organization in the Bay Area. “I want to change the lives of women in this country—and that should be done by someone who had a baby at 19, who white-knuckled her way through college,” she told O: The Oprah Magazine in 2009, which put her on its first annual Power List of influential American women that same year.
Simon was born in 1977 in the Fillmore section of San Francisco's Western Addition neighborhood. In this densely populated city, the nearby areas of Haight-Ashbury and the Castro district had once been home to thriving urban countercultures but had declined considerably by the 1980s. Haight-Ashbury had been the epicenter of the hippie/beatnik culture in the 1960s, then devolved into a mecca for the homeless and drug users. The Castro emerged in the 1970s as the West Coast's most thriving lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender neighborhood but was decimated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Like other American cities, crack cocaine gained a permanent foothold in San Francisco and turned Simon's local turf into a bleak, violent urban landscape.
Simon grew up in a single-parent household and dropped out of George Washington High School to work full time at Taco Bell. In an interview with Sarah Raskin for a special Fall 2005 issue of Community Youth Development (CYD) Journal, partially funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Simon said she had some brushes with the law for shoplifting. On the radar of juvenile-justice officials, Simon was invited to join the venerable Huckleberry Youth Program, a San Francisco program for at-risk teens, but she initially scorned the opportunity. “I felt that I was too smart and I'd been through too much to sit in circles, talking about museums, art, HIV, pregnancy, and the men we picked,” she told Raskin. “I had boyfriends who sold crack; I carried their guns in my backpack so they wouldn't get in trouble. But I found myself loving the group. And we—San Francisco's most hard-core girls—took ownership of it.”
Through that group Simon came into contact with counselors at the CYWD, an organization founded in 1993 to help female teens who had been otherwise overlooked by social-service agencies. Its founder, Rachel Pfeffer, strove to create a program that reached out to the homeless, to gang members, and to sex workers who were still minors; Pfeffer's mission was to build an organization with programs designed by and staffed by those it served. Simon was hired as an Page 150 | Top of Articleoutreach worker, and soon left her Taco Bell job and returned to school. When Pfeffer enlisted Simon's help in finding a new executive director for the CYWD, she realized she wanted the job herself. Simon became co-interim director of the CYWD in 1997, and was named permanent executive director a year later.
Simon's schedule was a full one. In addition to working full time, she also became a mother at age 19, and her role as head of the CYWD brought her national attention. She spent seven years at its helm, expanding a budget from $478,000 to $1.2 million and working with more than 3,000 young women a year. It was part of Simon's job to raise that money, either through public speaking events or by writing grants to win government and philanthropic stipends. The CYWD offered such programs as the Girls Detention Advocacy Project, which helped young women in houses of detention or on probation, and published a booklet in both English and Spanish that explained some basics about juvenile law and how the legal process worked. “The center is run by its constituency—young women who are poor and may have worked in prostitution and drug sales,” she told journalist Nanette Asimov for the October 5, 2003, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Every year, we hire 11 young women under 18—straight from the streets and jail—and train them to be community organizers. Over 150 girls have been trained here to lead a different life.”
Simon admitted that one of the biggest challenges of her job was trying to explain to potential supporters that measurable data on the effectiveness of CYWD's programs—such as high school or general equivalency diploma (GED) completion rates or full-time employment numbers of its graduates—was difficult to provide and, in a way, irrelevant. “We don't believe success is achieved by a young woman ‘escaping’ from her world,” she told Fara Warner in a March 2004 interview for a Fast Company article. “Our city communities are dying, so our success is measured by how much these young women reinvest in their communities to make change here, not somewhere else.”
Simon was attending a conference at New York University in the fall of 2003 when she was notified that she was one of 24 new MacArthur fellows. The awards, commonly known as the “genius” grants, are bestowed annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to a highly select group of creative professionals, cutting-edge researchers, and visionaries in the social sciences. At 26, Simon was the youngest among that year's MacArthur fellows. She used some of the $500,000 award to enroll in Mills College, a liberal arts school near Oakland, as a public policy/Asian studies major.
Simon stepped down as executive director of CYWD in 2005 after seven years on the job. Later that year she went to work for the San Francisco District Attorney's Office as director of its Reentry Services division. In 2008 she cofounded a public policy consulting firm, SYMI, and a year later became the newest executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Founded in 1968, the group is true to its name, offering legal services to victims of discrimination and raising awareness of social iniquities, especially the disparities in juvenile justice and adult incarceration rates according to race/ethnicity. “I'm blessed to have these amazing opportunities and awards,” she told Raskin in the CYD Journal interview about the MacArthur fellowship, while adding “at the same time it feels really weird and contradictory. I struggle with that. How do you get awarded for something that's supposed to be done?”
“Girl Power for Social Justice,” in Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading from the Heart, edited by Nina Simons with Anneke Campbell, Park Street Press, 2010.
“Youth-Led Social Change,” in Juvenile Justice: Advancing Research, Policy, and Practice, edited by Francine Sherman and Francine Jacobs, Wiley, 2011.
Fast Company, March 2004.
O: The Oprah Magazine, September 2009.
San Francisco Chronicle, October 5, 2003, p. A21; November 27, 2008.
Raskin, Sarah, “An Interview with Lateefah Simon,” Community Youth Development Journal, Fall 2005, http://www.cydjournal.org/2005Fall/pdf/Raskin_Article.pdf (accessed September 26, 2011).