Lateefah Simon

Photo: Mona T. Brooks

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Who Put You in Charge? Lateefah Simon
Community leader, change agent

At 15 she was a client at the Center for Young Women's Development, which helps troubled and poor young women transform their lives. By 19 she was the center's executive director. Seven years later she received a MacArthur "genius" grant. Today Simon, 32, is executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, a senior at Mills College, and the mother of a 13-year-old daughter. We asked her how she claimed her power:

I grew up in the Fillmore, a community in San Francisco that was hit hard by the crack-cocaine epidemic. My neighborhood was at the edge of the Castro, where men were dying of AIDS, and I knew the black community was suffering, too. With all that tragedy around, I began to politicize what I saw—I felt entitled to be political. Once you feel that, everything is in your grasp: You think, "I can learn to speak in front of people, write grants, develop policy. It may take me longer, but I can do it." When I was 18 and eight months pregnant, I would go and speak about HIV, and I knew people were thinking, "Who are you to talk about safe sex?" But I didn't apologize. I want to change the lives of women in this country—and that should be done by someone who had a baby at 19, who white-knuckled her way through college, who taught herself to run an organization. When people say, "How do you do it?" I say I'm not doing half the work my grandmother did. If you want to inflict your change, you have to recognize who you're accountable to. The women before me accepted nothing but the best, and I owe it to them to lead.
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