Advocate for young women, Activist for At-Risk Youth, (1977— )
It’s not easy to find one’s path in life, one’s passion. For young at-risk women (sex workers, drug dealers, incarcerated women) in particular, opportunities for positive development are rare. Lateefah Simon found her passion in working with just those same women, having been one once herself.
At about the age of sixteen, Lateefah Simon had given up school and was working full-time at a Taco Bell when she was recruited by a worker to become part of the Huckleberry Youth Program. Though reluctant to join a group of at-risk girls, Simon became part of the program and loved it; in fact, when San Francisco’s Center for Young Women’s Development opened with positions available, Simon applied for and became a street outreach worker. As a young girl who was, at the time, on probation in the court system for being an habitual shoplifter, she was a perfect choice for the job.
The Center for Young Women’s Development, founded by Rachel Pfeffer, helps women working on the streets as drug dealers or prostitutes, or in the juvenile justice system for such offenses, to become self-sufficient; it is designed to educate young women and affirm their place in their communities. It also trains them to become leaders who can have a voice in creating laws that affect their lives and other women like them. What makes the Center a singular place is that it is peer-run; the outreach workers are often the same age as those they are working with, with similar backgrounds and experiences. About Pfeffer’s unique vision, Simon says, “She wanted to develop an organization where young people who had been pushed aside by pretty much everyone, who make people uncomfortable – sex workers, girls who sell crack, the Lateefahs of the world – could lead. There was no other place that would respect my experience, my intelligence.” The Center also works within juvenile hall itself, educating young women to be advocates for their rights.
When Pfeffer decided to leave the Center, Lateefah Simon helped to lead the search for a new leader, and was named executive director herself in 1998. As director, Simon continued to develop the Center and its work in the justice system, as well as working nationally and internationally to help at-risk women get the support they need. In 2005, Simon stepped away from that position to become Director of Reentry Programs, a new program that finds her working in the District Attorney’s Office. The DA’s Reentry Unit utilizes many different educational and community programs to keep first-time young drug offenders from ending up back in the juvenile justice system, and helps them reenter the community with economic opportunities and chances for positive development. She is a member of the Board of Directors of both the Women’s Foundation of California, and the San Francisco Foundation’s Koshland Committee. She is studying at the Mills College School of Public Policy.
Lateefah Simon’s remarkable achievements have garnered her recognition from the Ford Foundation, Ms. Foundation, Oprah Magazine, the National Council on Research on Women, and the National Organization for Women. She also received the MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 2004, and was featured in the PBS documentary Girl Trouble. At age 30, her passion has already taken her far and is continuing to grow.