Giving Girls An Opportunity

Lateefah Simon is the 22 year old executive director of the Center for Young Women’s Development, an independent grassroots non-profit located in the South of Market District of San Francisco. Below are excerpts from an interview which Bessa Kautz recently did for a National Radio Project show.
Lateefah: The Center for Young Women’s Development is an organization run for and by girls from the juvenile justice system and from the streets. We do a number of things, but the basis of it is we’re giving young women an economic opportunity to do social justice work. Young women from the streets and young women from the juvenile justice system often times are not given the opportunity to do movement building work, we’re not given an opportunity to really push some of the social structures in our communities. I came personally into the organization at 17, right off of probation and just struggling. And two years later I had the opportunity to think about what we were missing and I thought that work inside the jails was something that we really needed to do. So what we do is we honestly go out everyday and let girls know what’s going on, how we can fight and how we can bring them into different organizations if they so choose.
In San Francisco, what we’ve noticed in the past three to five years is that young women are being arrested at preposterous proportions for narcotics possession with the intent to sell. A lot of young women are trying to make money to feed their famlies and they’re out there and they’re selling dope, they’re trying to survive we’re finding that girls are being locked up for economical means because of an economic crisis among poor people of color. We’re seeing that if there are no well-paid, leadership, community-based ways for young women to flourish, because the education system is not cutting it, they need to have an alternative. And that alternative has been the streets.
The needs of young women are vast. From very early childhood sexual abuse to systemic poverty, lack of education, and lack of self worth. You know, we come out of our families feeling like nothing…There’s been a forgotten link in this whole conversation and debate about young people. People don’t talk about young women. When they’re talking about young women they’ll usually refer to them as a sidekick to something that’s going on involving young men. We visited the California Youth Authority and the small amount of women they had there, they were doing the laundry for the boys. Young women are being given horrible sentences and being sent up to Chowchilla and Valley State and these are 16 and 17 year old young women and people aren’t looking at the core issues that most of these young women have children…You know boys are often times given the opportunity to talk to the judge. A lot of times, we’re seeing that girls are not given that opportunity…
We think the significance of the project is that all the girls who are running it have been locked up, have been behind bars. At the Center for Young Women’s Development, we’ve reduced the recidivism rate of the young women we work with by 100%. No one has gone back to jail in the past 2 years. And how have we done that? Because if you give an opportunity to young women to organize their community, to get paid for it, to move boundaries, to call city hearings, to confront the police commission, there is a sense of power in that. And, you know, why would you wanna go back? Because you know you have a community of strong activists, strong sisters that are around you.