Original article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle
By Carolyn Jones
Fierce debates over race, class, police and inequality may be raging across the U.S., but for Lateefah Simon, the discussion is all rather simple.
“Everyone’s talking about social justice. What is it? What does it look like? Well, it looks like less crime, less poverty, good schools, jobs we love. … It looks like peace,” the civil rights advocate said last week at her office in San Francisco. “I think everyone wants the same things. It’s really pretty basic.”
Simon, 37, has been championing those principles since she was a teenager in San Francisco’s Western Addition housing projects. She’s fought for job training and child care for young women caught up in the criminal justice system, education and housing for parolees, and second chances for those least likely to get them.
And, colleagues say, she’s done it all with a smile that could melt even the harshest probation officer.
“People sometimes associate social justice with angry protests, but she does it with warmth, with depth, with love,” said Olis Simmons, director of Youth Uprising community center in East Oakland. “She’s consistently down-to-earth and humble. She’s truly a peaceful warrior.”
Simon’s work, which has led her to the top of numerous Bay Area civil rights organizations, has earned her a slew of accolades, including a MacArthur Foundation grant when she was just 26, a Levi Strauss Pioneer Award and a spot on O magazine’s first Power List.
But for her, the awards and fancy job titles are secondary to the rewards she reaps by helping the Bay Area’s young men and women who are trapped in a seemingly endless labyrinth of unemployment, jail, drug use and despair, she said.
Simon knows a bit about that cycle herself. A high-school dropout, she was working full time at Taco Bell as a teenager, had a baby at age 19 and was on probation for shoplifting before things started to turn around.
“I was the worst student at George Washington High. I was every teacher’s nightmare,” she said with a laugh at her office on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, with views of Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge and passing ferries. “I really had no idea what I was doing.”
While on probation, she was referred to a nonprofit called the Center for Young Women’s Development, which provided jobs, training, classes, books and other services to girls and young women on the streets and in the criminal justice system.
Troubled young women
There, Simon met girls who were involved in sex trafficking, drug sales and myriad other problems, and, as part of the program, learned how to help them. As a teen not far from the streets herself, she would walk around the Western Addition and Tenderloin and hand out condoms, needles, bleach, candy bars, sandwiches and information about getting help.
“I saw a resilience in these young women,” she said. “These were people who had absolutely nothing, but were somehow able to make it through the day. And the next day. And the next. We developed real friendships and wonderful camaraderie.”
Simon became so involved and motivated by the plight of San Francisco’s struggling young women that she started going toBoard of Supervisors meetings every Tuesday to ask what the city was doing to help young women on the fringes. Her passion and intelligence caught the attention of city leaders, including then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano and Kamala Harris, who at the time was a young attorney for the city.
The center’s board was so impressed by Simon’s efforts they named her executive director when Simon was just 19 years old. She was suddenly in charge of a staff of 10 and a $750,000 annual budget.
Harris helped guide her through those years, Simon said.
“She just changed my life. She was tough as nails. She said to me, ‘You need to be excellent. … So first off, you need to go to college,’ “ Simon recalled.
Simon enrolled at Mills College in Oakland, taking classes nights and weekends while working full time at the center and raising her daughter. She eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public policy.
Meanwhile, Harris — who by then had become San Francisco’s district attorney — asked Simon to help start a program to help nonviolent, first-time, low-level drug offenders get jobs, enroll in school, attend parenting classes and otherwise improve their lives before they became embroiled in the revolving door of the criminal justice system.
“Our goal was to get people off the street. How do you do that? Turned out it was easy — you just ask them what they need,” Simon said. “Housing? A bank account? A job? Therapy? A gym membership, so you can take better care of yourself? We could help them get those things.”
Simon and her colleagues would go to court hearings and try to intercept young men and women as they met with a judge. In the one-year program, offered as an alternative to jail, offenders would take mandatory parenting classes, regular drug tests, job training workshops and other steps designed to help them “transition to a crime-free life,” Harris wrote in the Huffington Post.
If they completed the program, their felony charges would be dropped.
The program, called Back on Track, was immediately successful. Those who graduated from Back on Track had only a 10 percent recidivism rate, compared with 70 percent for those not enrolled in the program. It was also a bargain for taxpayers: The public pays about $5,000 for each participant, compared with the $50,000 or so it costs to keep a person incarcerated for a year.
The program has since been adopted in cities across the U.S., and was hailed as a model by outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Harris credited the program’s success to Simon’s energy and imagination.
“Lateefah Simon has devoted her life’s work to helping the poor, the disadvantaged, and those trapped in the cycle of our criminal justice system,” Harris said in an e-mail. “While working with me during my tenure as district attorney of San Francisco, she led my office’s work to create ‘Back on Track,’ nationally recognized program that helped divert low-level offenders away from lives of crime and toward productive futures. She is a tremendous asset to the state of California and a champion for justice, equality and dignity.”
Civil rights causes
After several years with the city, Simon left to head the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the group formed at the request of President John F. Kennedyto push forward civil rights issues through the legal system. Simon was among the youngest heads of the group, and one of the only non-attorneys.
There, she worked on “ban the box” legislation to remove employment barriers for ex-prisoners, and helped formed a legal clinic to help ex-convicts find housing and jobs.
Since 2011, Simon has served as director of the Rosenberg Foundation’s California Future Initiative, which, among other things, gives grants to organizations helping formerly incarcerated women and children who’ve been exposed to violence and trauma.
But she still finds time to visit young women in jail, to help them find the services they need and serve as a personal role model when she can.
“I want people to know that a better life is possible,” she said. “This city is my soil. I know these people. I love these people. I want them to know that no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you are due a process of transformation. You deserve another chance.”
Simon’s personal life has seen some transformations, as well. Her older daughter is now in college, and Simon has a 3-year-old daughter. She has also moved from San Francisco to North Oakland, where she hopes to be involved with the incoming Libby Schaaf mayoral administration and other East Bay undertakings.
But the biggest change was the death in June of her husband, Kevin Weston, 45, a journalist who headed New American Media, Yo! Youth Outlook and other news outlets focusing on young people, people of color and others sometimes overlooked by the mainstream media.
Weston, who was also a Knight Fellow at Stanford, died of leukemia at their home after the couple launched a nationwide campaign to increase the number of African American bone marrow donors.
“Do I get sad? Yes. We all get sad,” Simon said. “I have friends still dying of AIDS. My dad lives in the Tenderloin. Trust me, it’s not all peachy. … But what can I do? I keep going. There’s a lot to do, still.”
Colleagues say that Simon’s biggest contribution has been as a role model. Her warmth, optimism and resolve lift up everyone around her, from teenage girls selling drugs in the projects to the leaders in Sacramento, said Zachary Norris, director of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland.
“She’s helped make policies at the very top, and been a role model for those at the very bottom,” he said. “And for me, personally, she’s been an amazing mentor. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel she was a friend.”
Daniel Lee, executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, called Simon “one of the truly prophetic people in the Bay Area.”
“You look at what’s happening now in the youth justice system — she was doing that in her teens,” he said. “She’s accomplished so much, it’s like she’s lived six lifetimes. … She’s so respected and loved and admired, she’s like a grandmother, and she’s not even 40.”
Simon’s approach has impacted almost every civil rights and social justice group in the region, colleagues said. Not only has she helped change policies, but she’s been personally involved with leaders as well as clients.
“She’s been a pioneer in flipping the youth justice system on its head,” Norris said. “She tells people, ‘The people with fancy titles and degrees are not the experts on what your needs are. You are the expert on what you need.’ That approach has really changed everything, for the better.”
For all her accolades, Simon remains approachable and unpretentious. During an interview, she’s as interested in listening and having a conversation as she is in answering questions. Her stories are filled with smiles and laughter, and her enthusiasm never flags.
“My goal is to create a Bay Area that’s good to its people,” she said. “I figure I have 70 more years to pound the pavement and get that done. I know we can do it.”
Carolyn Jones is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org