Profiles in Youth Work

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One of the rising young stars in youth work began her career as a disillusioned high schooler, ditching classes and handing out snatched condoms to her peers.

By the age of 19, Lateefah Simon was executive director of an agency for troubled girls in her hometown of San Francisco. Nine years later, she remains disillusioned – with the justice system, the education system and the health system, believing that they keep many troubled youths stuck in poverty.

So she keeps fighting. Her devotion to her agency and to youth, along with her powerful public speaking, has garnered attention from national leaders in the field, and last year earned her a prestigious MacArthur fellowship – the so-called “genius award,” which comes with $500,000. She was 27.

What makes Simon so special? Friends and colleagues point to three characteristics: her ability to translate complex concepts into basic language, her ability to empathize with clients’ situations and a genuine air of modesty.

“Lateefah gets all these accolades, and still, you could walk in a room and not know she’s there,” says longtime friend James Bell, director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that deals with minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system.

The joy of success and recognition are not lost on Simon, but neither are the hopes of admirers. That keeps her on the treadmill that many a youth agency administrator will recognize: Social life is a distant memory. Vacation days are routinely filled with meetings.

Simon knows she needs a break, which is why she is preparing to hand over the reins of her agency and go to college – if she can pull herself away.

Teenager as Boss

Simon grew up with her mother and sister in the Fillmore district, a black neighborhood that has since become trendy and gentrified.

“We were a low-income family,” says Simon. “Mom held it down, but we live in one of the most expensive cities in the country. If you needed clothes or whatever, get a job.”

She worked nights at Taco Bell for minimum wage; her daytime hours were less focused. “I never got into too much trouble, but … I missed school a lot. A whole lot.” The only school activity that really enthused her was debate, which she did all four years.

Simon’s breezy attitude towards school did not translate to the apathetic demeanor of a typical truant. One of her best friends was transgender, so Simon became an advocate for the area’s gay community.

Sexual health also drew her interest. She began taking loads of condoms from Huckleberry House, a youth-serving agency where she attended a girls program, and handed them out to students at her high school. The agency gives out condoms for free, but Simon snuck out boxes of them.

A fellow student told her she was doing the same thing as a street outreach worker for the Center for Young Women’s Development (CYWD), a nonprofit that works with high-risk girls in the city. “She was makin’ $8.50 hour, and I’m doing the same thing for free out of my locker!” says Simon.

She landed a job doing outreach for CYWD the next year, and was hooked. “I loved street outreach, and I was good at it,” says Simon. “It’s all about suspending judgment.”

The next year she was appointed director of a telephone hotline project at CYWD. Simon sent girls undercover to human service agencies to find out which were the best for various needs. Their findings were used to create a referral service for youth.

In 1997, CYWD founding Executive Director Rachel Pfeffer left for New York. The CYWD board placed the future of the small agency in the hands of Simon, who was 19 and had recently given birth to her daughter, Aminah.

The recent MacArthur award is for her work in building the agency, which grew from a staff of 12 to 22, while its budget eventually doubled, to $700,000. As the organization’s reputation spread, more girls came for help, some of them having been commercially exploited or having struggled with substance abuse. Getting more requests than it could handle, Simon realized the agency could move away from street outreach towards other services.

For a while, the center struggled to balance funding while trying to meet the demands of some 2,500 diverse clients. By paring down the number of services offered, CYWD now provides higher-quality programs for about 450 girls each year. Those programs include support services for girls in detention and gay youth of color, as well as CYWD’s cornerstone project, Sisters Rising.

Through Sisters Rising, CYWD hires 15 girls each year who have gone through the justice system. It pays them more than double the minimum wage, and provides benefits as well as basic job-skills training as they work on specific CYWD projects.

Everyone on the permanent staff is under 27. “They have really demonstrated what it means to be peer-led, taken it to whole other level,” says Lenore Anderson, CYWD’s board chair and director.

“Most people will give you pats on the back about” being run by youth, says Bell, “but they don’t respect you and don’t take you seriously. It’s a credit to Lateefah that she has learned the skills that make it work.”

National Attention

Simon’s reputation was largely confined to people on the West Coast, like Bell. Then in 2001, she delivered a knock-out keynote speech at a juvenile detention conference in Portland, Ore., sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

News of her accomplishments at CYWD and her oratory skills reached Chicago’s MacArthur Foundation, purveyor of the prestigious MacArthur Fellows Program each year. Simon was among the 24 recipients named in 2003, and is the youngest African-American woman ever to receive the honor.

“I am just still so humbled by it,” she says. “I mean, hella people had to have come together and said we really want her to be in this work for the rest of her days.”

The honor came as Simon began her transition from CYWD. She wants to show her daughter the world outside their city, and go to school. She has tried to step back for college before, but, “I’d have to miss a class for something at the center, and it would be like, ‘You can’t miss this or that,’ and eventually I would just drop it.”

She has also planned to leave CYWD before. Simon says that more than once she had her resignation letter ready to print. “I’d feel like we weren’t making a dent here, and then one of the girls would come in and say, ‘Yo, I got a job!’, and I’d click ‘delete,’ ” she says.

She believes she has positioned CYWD to thrive without her. By paying salaries well above nonprofit averages, with good benefits, Simon has built the kind of top-down loyalty she feels is too rare in youth work. She has diversified the center’s funding, too: Next year’s income will come from 26 sources.

“I’m just here holdin’ up a chair, makin’ motivational speeches,” she says with a laugh. “By next year, I will have very little to do in terms of the functionality of CYWD.”

Can she live with that? “I know that I want to grow, and the Mac[Arthur] award has pushed me to think about how I can take some ‘me’ time,” says Simon. “I don’t know if I can ever really leave the center. I’ll probably have to be booted out.”

Contact: Center for Young Women’s Development (415) 703-8800,