Lateefah Simon remembers her own struggles as a community college student in San Francisco. At one point, the young mother was evicted from her home, scurrying to pack boxes to move before going to class.
She recalled one professor asking her about the dust on her jacket which was soiled from the move. "I just broke down in tears," Simon said. "There's something about community colleges. The professors and staff see students on their knees literally, figuratively and spiritually just trying to get through."
Simon told her story on Tuesday for students, faculty, staff and community members at Montgomery County Community College as part of the Richard K. Bennett Distinguished Lectureship for Peace and Social Justice. Simon, who grew up in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco, then ravaged by poverty and crack cocaine, rose to become a leading advocate for civil rights and social justice. She is president of the Akonadi Foundation, which works to support and nurture the racial justice movement to eliminate the structural racism that lies at the heart of inequity in the United States.
For her work, Simon has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship and being name named Woman of the Year by the California State Assembly. She has also been recognized by the Ford Foundation, the National Organization for Women, Lifetime Television, and O Magazine.
The same caring approach used by her community college professors is the approach she took in trying to get to the root cause of problems in the San Francisco Bay area that impact many metropolitan areas throughout the country – drugs, poverty and mass incarceration, among others.
Simon used her personal journey to demonstrate to the audience how solutions to big problems often begin with one person who is willing to act.
She said while race is central to many of these issues, it’s a topic that is rarely discussed openly. She said institutions celebrate diversity, but avoid the deeper topic of race. "It should not be up to the black person or Latino person to teach others about race. I'm exhausted by it." Earlier in the day, Simon did an extensive interview about her life and activist work with Michele Cuomo, dean of Arts and Humanities and host of the radio show MCCC On the Air. Cuomo's interview with Simon will air on WNPV 1440 AM in separate segments at 6:05 p.m. on April 30 and May 7. After the shows air, podcasts will be available at MCCC On Air.
The Richard K. Bennett Distinguished Lectureship for Peace and Social Justice was established at MCCC in 1981 by Bennett, a Quaker who devoted his life's work to accomplishing peace and justice through non-violent efforts.