I live in a country where we put children in shackles and in concrete cells. Working together, with righteousness and hope, we can create a country that is about reverence and reconciliation, not a world of shackles and concrete cells.
It's not easy to find one's path in life, one's passion. For young at-risk women -- sex workers, drug dealers and 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 Taco Bell when she was recruited by an outreach worker to become part of the Huckleberry Youth Program. At first reluctant to join a group of at-risk girls, Simon tried the program and loved it; in fact, when newly opened San Francisco's Center for Young Women's Development was looking for employees, Simon applied and became a street outreach worker. As a young girl who was, at the time, on probation in the court system for being a habitual shoplifter, she was a perfect choice for the job.
The Center for Young Women's Development, founded by Rachel Pfeffer, helps women drug dealers, prostitutes and to those in the juvenile justice system, to become self-sufficient and develop self-esteem. It also trains them to become community leaders who can insist on their rights and affect laws that improve their lives and those of 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."
When Pfeffer decided to leave the Center, Lateefah Simon was named Executive Director in 1998. In that role, Simon continued the Center´s work in the justice system. She also expanded the Center´s vision, to work nationally and internationally to help at-risk women find much needed support.
In 2005, Simon left the Center to become Director of Reentry Programs in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office. The DA's Reentry Unit uses 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. Simon 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 a student at the Mills College School of Public Policy.
Lateefah Simon's remarkable achievements have garnered her recognition from the Ford Foundation, Ms. Foundation, The 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.