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Esteemed women’s advocate, ‘Woman of the Year’ adjusts to life as a freshwoman

Courtesy San Francisco Observer

The last thing entering freshwoman Lateefah Simon will tell you about herself is that she has won the prestigious "genius" award or that she is San Francisco's "Woman of the Year."

The petite 29-year-old with thick hipster-chic glasses and long black braids is more likely to talk about the great guy she just started dating or about how her nine-year-old daughter Aminah, loves Harry Potter books.

Instead of revealing that by 19 she was running one of San Francisco's largest non-profits and is currently working on an ambitious project at the San Francisco District Attorney's office, she'll more likely admit that she's already overwhelmed by her classes at Mills and is having a hard time just finding her way around campus.

After all Simon has accomplished, she admits that starting her education at Mills has been a daunting experience. She is more at ease at the Hall of Justice than in Mills Hall. However, those who know Simon are confident she will succeed.

Rachel Pfeffer, founder of The Center for Young Women's Development in San Francisco and Simon's longtime mentor, believes Simon's "amazing mind will be an asset [to Mills]." She said, "She will bring a whole level of experience to the class and in return she will be enriched."

Simon has accomplished more in 10 years than most people do in a lifetime. Yet for all she's done to help empower young women at The Center and to assist ex-offenders in turning their lives around at the Hall of Justice, Simon believes that she is just fulfilling her responsibility to give back to her community. Now, after giving so much of herself to those in need, she is finally giving herself the one thing she's wanted for a long time: a college education.

Pfeffer says that Simon is "wise beyond her years" yet Simon's confidence in her role as an academic remains untested-which makes Simon very nervous. Simon's admissions counselor, Debbie Woods, said that in the beginning of the admissions process she had to convince Simon that she was Mills material. "I said 'Lateefah, you have so much to offer.'" Woods said that Simon's background in social justice and activism speaks volumes about her as a candidate. On top of her experience, Woods said, "She's got passion. She's a risk taker and intellectually curious. She's going to leave a mark on Mills."

Simon never thought she'd come this far. After dropping out of high school, the single teenaged mom from the economically challenged Western Addition of San Francisco went from barely getting by while working at Taco Bell to thriving as the executive director of The Center for Young Women's development. Simon's tireless work at the Center helping young women a lot like her self earned her recognition, awards and opportunities to expand on her activism. Simon is reluctant to dwell too much on all the attention she's received from her community activism. The last thing she wants to be associated with is what she calls a "poverty pimp"-that is, someone who draws attention to their self for the community work they've done rather than to the work itself.

Through her work at The Center, Simon has provided thousands of young women with the resources they need in order to break the cycle of homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution and incarceration. Her organization works in tandem with the San Francisco Hall of Justice to provide incarcerated young women with advocates to help them navigate through the juvenile justice system. One of the many accomplishments under her leadership is the zero-tolerance policy against homophobia implemented at the Juvenile Hall.

When Simon decided to pass the torch as director of the Center last year, the hours she spent working at the Center paid off with a part-time position at the District Attorney's office. Currently she is the director of the reentry program that will prevent ex-offenders from committing more crimes by providing the job training, education and guidance they need to reintegrate successfully with their families and neighborhoods. Her program focuses mainly on women, young men and first time offenders.

Simon's achievements have been astounding. During Simon's tenure at the Center, which is operated completely by 35 of the women the Center had initially helped, undercover judges seeking worthy candidates for the Mac Arthur award spied on Simon for eight months. In 2004, Simon was the youngest female to be selected for the prize of $500,000-no strings attached. In March 2005, San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno selected Simon to be San Francisco's "Woman of the Year." Even Oprah Winfrey honored Simon with the first "chutzpah" award in the May 2004 issue of "O" Magazine. Other organizations that have recognized Simon's achievements include the National Organization for Women and the National Council for Research on Women and the Women's Fund.

"It still feels so surreal," Simon said. "I'm still being called on by folks who want me to consult. It still feels strange."

Simon's ability to find empowerment within groups of young women is evident through her reputation with the staff from the Center. The current executive director of the Center, Maureen Sanchez, has found not only a mentor in Simon, but also a good friend. "One of the things I've learned from Lateefah is sisterhood-how to stay true to yourself and use honesty to empower young women," she said. "I've learned how to be real with each other as a skill."

Simon is fulfilling her wish of joining the legacy of strong Mills women before her-especially those who returned to school at an untraditional age, and balanced single-motherhood with work, bills to pay and laundry to do. But her number one priority will always remain the same: her 9-year-old daughter Aminah. "I'm very proud of her," Aminah said. "It's something she really wants to do. I think it's the right decision and I totally support her."