"If you can manage a bad pimp for two years and still be living," says Lateefah Simon, "then you've got leadership skills you need to put to good use."
This isn't just inner-city bluster. Simon briefly left high school, and though she never worked the sex trade, by age 19 she was a single mother living in low-income housing. She knows the streets.
Now 27, Simon is executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for Young Women's Development, whose street-smart philosophy has made it one of the nation's most successful women's advocacy efforts. The nonprofit center hires young women off the streets at $10 an hour and teaches them skills such as writing grants and formulating budgets. Participants then create programs to address the real-world problems they and other young women face on the street, in the juvenile justice system, and even in prison.
The results include such projects as the Girl's Detention Advocacy Project, run by third-generation gang member Marlene Sanchez, which advises young women on maneuvering the juvenile-hall system. Sanchez, 23, was in and out of detention and group homes for five years before coming to the center. Her complaint: Even the best-intentioned "juvie" programs treat all children the same, even though demographics and needs have changed dramatically.
With the benefit of experience, Sanchez and her team created programs, handouts, and booklets to address issues facing young women in juvenile hall, such as the difficulty of seeing their children from behind bars. Their handbook, Know Justice, written in both English and Spanish with input from young women still in detention, teaches the basics of the judicial system. The book is available in 30 California counties.
The team also assists girls leaving juvenile detention—a lonely, unsettling transition Sanchez knew all too well after cycling in and out of the system five times. A booklet called "The Hook Ups" includes phone numbers and contacts of dozens of San Francisco programs that can help girls get clothes, housing, jobs, even tattoo removals.
For Simon, such projects are at the heart of the center—young women helping other young women make it through one more day out of prostitution and out of jail. She says the center rescued her: She was hired as a 17-year-old in 1994, then became executive director in 1997. She has built an organization with a budget of $420,000 and, in October, she won a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship grant.
For Simon, getting off the streets doesn't mean leaving the streets. "We don't believe success is achieved by a young woman 'escaping' from her world," she says. "Our city communities are dying, so our success is measured by how much these young women reinvest in their communities to make change here, not somewhere else."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.