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On the street and in the boardroom, Lateefah Simon moves toward justice

Lateefah Simon sitting in a chair
Photo credit: A. Chan-Geiger/Stanford University

By Michele Chandler

Lateefah Simon knows the struggles poor people face each day. She grew up in public housing in San Francisco, a child whose parents spiraled into addiction as crack cocaine raged through inner cities during the 1980s. She ended up on probation for shoplifting. The summer after graduating from high school, she got pregnant and had a baby at age 19.

Today, at 41, Simon has spent nearly half of her life as an activist, focused on changing the lives of people who live on the margins and committed to shaping a new generation of champions for social justice.

Now a college graduate, president of Oakland’s Akonadi Foundation, a trustee of the California State University and an elected representative on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Board of Directors, Simon was the keynote speaker for Stanford’s third annual Sally Dickson Lecture on Diversity, Inclusion and Reflection. The event, held May 22 in Cubberley Auditorium, was co-sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs and the Diversity and First-Generation (DGen) Office.

In her talk, titled "Here and Now: Moving Toward Justice," Simon recounted her journey from a teen in trouble to a leader in the world of nonprofits and advocacy and outlined how personal connections are critical keys to justice today.

That journey began when she was foundering at 15, had dropped out of school and was working as a manager at a Taco Bell, when she was tapped to work as a street organizer with the San Francisco-based Center for Young Women’s Development. That nonprofit, now renamed the Young Women’s Freedom Center, helps young women turn their lives around with assistance in the form of job training, child care, mentoring and other services. Simon was named the nonprofit’s executive director in 1997 at age 19, and her leadership garnered national prominence. In 2003, at 26 years old,  Simon was named the youngest woman to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, commonly referred to as the “genius grant.”

“I came here tonight not as an academic, not as a director of this cool foundation that’s giving away millions of dollars to support social movements in Oakland, but as a black woman who is extremely interested in the language of freedom,”  Simon told the Stanford audience. That language, she said, is not simply about what leaders don’t want, or what they are sick of, or what “we aren’t going to take anymore,” but the language of leaders looking beyond injustice.

Justice, Simon said, means that pathways for people to better their lives   — from addiction treatment and services to child care, education and job security  —  must be available to all, not to just a privileged few.  

For instance, she said, while debate in education policy swirls around charter and non-charter schools, “I’m like, ‘what about school lunch? What about access to transportation to get the mama and the baby to school?’ I get that these are all very deep issues, but what about when that child gets sick and, because we don’t have universal child care or sick care, mom might lose her job?”

Under the leadership of then-District Attorney Kamala D. Harris, Simon helped create San Francisco’s first re-entry services division, designed to keep young, low-level offenders from committing new crimes and direct them to positive futures. Later, while attending Mills College, where she earned an undergraduate degree in public policy, she worked as the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

In 2014, during Stanford’s winter quarter, Simon was selected to participate in the Program on Social Entrepreneurship as a SEERS Fellow. That program is jointly run by Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law and the Haas Center for Public Service. At the time, Simon was a program director of the Rosenberg Foundation, which recently elected her to its board of directors.

Simon said she was compelled to run for a seat on the BART Board of Directors after Oscar Grant, a black male passenger, was fatally shot by a BART police officer in 2009. The officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and not guilty of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter, decisions that sparked widespread protest. Simon was elected to the BART board in 2016.

And despite all of her accomplishments, Simon has experienced personal struggles. In 2014, her husband, and “soul mate,” journalist Kevin Weston, died of a rare form of leukemia, leaving Simon a widow with two daughters.

Following her  prepared remarks at Stanford, Simon was joined on stage for a one-on-one conversation with Dereca Blackmon, director of the DGen Office. Later, she answered questions from students in the audience.

Asked by one student how she replenishes her “joy and grace” in the midst of injustice, Simon  said she turns to music and a network of supportive friends. “I would do the work on a local and national level, but the most important work that I can do is with the person sitting next to me. The person sitting next to me matters the most,” said Simon.

The Sally Dickson Lecture was created in 2015 by Greg Boardman, who was then vice provost for student affairs, to honor the contributions of Dickson, a former associate vice provost for student affairs and dean of educational resources. While at Stanford, Dickson was dedicated to community-building and engagement among Stanford’s students, faculty and staff.