Lateefah and Shangra at CYWD
As executive director from 1997-2005, Lateefah Simon provided a source of support and stability in the often-turbulent lives of girls who worked at The Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD), a San Francisco nonprofit founded in 1993 and featured in GIRL TROUBLE. The Center organizes young women in the underground street economies and the juvenile justice system to design and deliver peer education and support.
In a December 2005 interview, Simon talked to Independent Lens about finding her calling, her connection to the Center and making her mother proud.
When did you get involved with The Center for Young Women’s Development?
I came to the Center at 17. As a low-income youth, I had to work. That was my situation. I got in a little trouble—I got arrested a few times for shoplifting—but I’ve seen stuff on the Net about me saying, “Inmate Helps Girls,” but it wasn’t anything like that. I never served a night in jail.
What attracted you to the Center?
The Center did what I wanted to do—HIV and sexually transmitted disease education on the streets. People I knew very closely were on crack and had AIDS, and these things really affected me.
Why does the Center succeed where other programs don’t?
Where programs fail nationally, is that there is a prescription for young women—getting a job, training and a GED—that’s very cookie cutter. The young women [in GIRL TROUBLE] needed one thing, and they still need it—a community that is going to continue to be there during their process of growth and development. Systems and services have a very low tolerance for failure. Girls get kicked out of programs right and left. The Center for Young Women’s Development understands that rehabilitation and transformation takes a lifetime, especially for children who have experienced an exorbitant amount of trauma. You have to look at it as a journey.
How does it feel to know that you have helped a girl change her life?
I honestly don’t feel like I help people in that way. I’m just there, and the helping piece—it’s a reciprocal relationship in the sense that we’re giving each other community. For a lot of my life, the young women at the Center were all that I had in terms of community.
What does your family think of what you do?
My mother is very proud of me, and that means more to me than anything else. Actually, she has all the plaques and the awards; I don’t have them in my house. They mean more to her than to me. She sees that all of her struggles [as a low-income, single mother] weren’t in vain, and I’ve learned from those struggles and I was able to see the light in it.
How do you balance work and motherhood?
I see my baby like any other working mom—after work, and she’s a fabulous and great kid who keeps me grounded. Right now I’m lucky enough to work for [San Francisco District Attorney] Kamala Harris and she just inspires me to work so much harder. She is the first black woman ever to be elected district attorney in California. She’s just a record-breaker in so many different ways. So yeah, I work really hard, but she’s given me the opportunity to do so much.
Do you miss the Center?
I miss it with all my soul. There’s no place like that in the world. It’s a beautiful place with so much possibility and so much love. It’s hard, too, but it’s the right place to be for so many women. And it’s given me the critical consciousness that you can love people even if they’ve hurt other folks or even if they’ve hurt themselves.
Meet some of the girls Lateefah helped >>
Learn more about the juvenile justice system >>
Find out about opportunities for girls to get out of trouble >>