COLUMBIA — The sight of women being bought and sold against their will, the pain associated with the underground street economy and the jaws of addiction that devastate inner-city communities are among the experiences that Lateefah Simon has encountered during her 17 years of working as an activist in the San Francisco area.
"Each one of those experiences has taught me that women must be prioritized, and that the matriarch must be uplifted in order for democracy to prevail," Simon said.
Simon presented the Women's History Month keynote address — "Women: Balancing the Weight of Change" — Monday night in the Launer Auditorium at Columbia College.
In her address, Simon used a motif from a poem by Cherrie Moraga that says women carry the weight of the world on their shoulders.
"As we carry this weight we must look past the ideology of the 'Feminine Mystique,' because it is a lot deeper than that," Simon said, highlighting the issues of sexism, homophobia and racism that still plague society.
Although Simon talked about some of the ways the United States has progressed, she said there are endless statistics that show there is still a lot to be fixed.
"Women who work full time make 77 percent of the wages that their male counterparts make, unmarried women and students have been hit extremely hard by the economic crisis, and we incarcerate more women in this country than in any other industrialized nation in the world," she said, speaking in a crescendo and, at the end, appearing exhausted by the weight those statistics carry.
It's numbers like these that show the true importance of celebrating Women's History Month, Simon said.
Increasing equal educational opportunities for all creates an opportunity for transference of knowledge in our society, for deeper thinking, for collective dialogue and for increased peace, she said.
"In order to gain true gender equity, women must demand to assume positions of leadership in all the sectors of society," she said.
Simon, a nationally awarded advocate for juvenile and criminal justice reform, is the youngest recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. Currently she works as the director of justice for California's Women and Children Campaign at the Rosenberg Foundation, which focuses on poverty; reproductive and immigrant rights; and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.
When Simon was 15, she began volunteering at the Center for Young Women's Development, where she quickly became a staff member and worked to provide homeless, low-income and incarcerated young women the tools they needed to transform their lives.
Just four years later, she was appointed as the organization's executive director, becoming one of the youngest leaders of a social service agency in the country.
She created a program that worked on ways to prevent young offenders from returning to a life of crime, by substituting incarceration with close supervision and opportunities for education and employment. Her program serves as the national model.
Even though Simon has held a variety of positions throughout her career, her drive hasn't been tied to her career but to her sense of responsibility to the community.
"This work I will die doing," she said.