It was 2014, and Lateefah Simon, was on BART. Her husband had recently passed away, and Simon, who is legally blind, was taking her daughter to daycare. The train shuddered to a halt inside a tunnel, and people around her began grumbling about the delay.
“I realized in that moment that I’ll be on this system until the day that I die,” says Simon, who is now the BART Board Director for District 7. “I am tethered to the system. And I realized I owed it to all the young women I’d worked with, to my family, and to myself to do the scariest thing that I could ever do: run for office, win, and then figure out how to fix it.”
Simon, 40, is a wonderchild of Bay Area civil rights activism. At age 19, she was the executive director of the Center for Young Women’s Development. She had her first daughter young, but managed to study public policy at Mills College and social entrepreneurship at Stanford University. She was hired by Kamala Harris to lead the creation of San Francisco’s first re-entry services division, which later turned into a career as executive director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights. She’s currently running the Akonadi Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds projects supporting the racial justice movement.
But before all of that, she was a young girl in San Francisco.
“I was born and raised in the Fillmore,” Simon says. “Now, they call it NoPa, but back then, we called it Fillmore.”
Her family had deep roots in the neighborhood; her grandfather, Bunny Simon, owned eight jazz clubs there in the 1950s and ’60s.
During her childhood, Simon attended public schools in the city, ending up at George Washington High in the Richmond District.
“I wasn’t an amazing student,” she says, “but I was really good at speech and debate.”
Despite frequently skipping classes, she made the debate team for four years running.
“It really spurred me to become an activist and organizer,” she says.
While still in high school, Simon began volunteering with the Huckleberry Youth Center, Cole Street Clinic, and other organizations.
“I was literally stealing condoms from organizations and handing them out in the locker room,” she says. “Being a Black child in the Fillmore during the ’80s, it was such a juxtaposition with the queer rights movement, the war on drugs, mass incarceration. It was all tied together.”
From the get-go, Simon had a commitment to the people her organization served.
“Becoming the executive director of the Center for Young Women’s Development, I felt a responsibility. I didn’t have a college degree, but I was very much mentored by a number of people, including Kamala Harris,” she says. “She was the hardest-core mentor I’ve ever had. She told me you need to go to school. Whenever you can, get into college. I had a lot of people who had expectations of me, but Kamala demanded excellence, and thank God.”
That attention led Simon to develop a solid sense of herself and her goals.
“I’m hella clear why I’m here and what’s expected of me, and it’s to be completely accountable to the communities I work for,” Simon says. “Organizations must be relevant to the people they seek to work with or for. That’s what I do.”
While young women and victims of racial injustice have long been on Simon’s radar, her attention has now landed on a new diverse community in need of organizational accountability: BART’s 500,000 daily passengers.
“Transportation is central to mobility, human rights, economic development, and freedom,” Simon says, when asked how her values align with being a board director for BART. “We should be incredibly audacious in our vision for the system that we oversee.”
But being one of the decision-makers behind a struggling, aging piece of infrastructure is no easy feat. The decades-old system was meant to carry a quarter of the passengers that it currently serves, and the budget is limited. The first challenge, Simon says, is maintaining what they already have.
“I always explain it this way to the grandmothers who ask me what the situation is: You would never keep expanding on your house if the infrastructure under the house wasn’t safe,” she says. “Our core system has been rotting like a bad foundation. We have to figure out how to move a significant amount of resources to restoring it first, before we can talk expansion.”
And for Simon’s BART district, which includes parts of San Francisco, Oakland, Hercules, Richmond, and Berkeley, those needs are diverse.
At the moment, 70 percent of the BART fares goes into the operating budget, Simon says, whereas that number is closer to 20 percent in most other cities. While money is sorely needed to repair the system, one of Simon’s goals in her new role is to make BART affordable for those who depend on it most.
“I want to make sure that a single mother who lives in Hayward can afford to take BART to the Oakland Zoo,” she says.
But with affordability also comes access.
“We need to support accessibility for disabled people and people who live in transit deserts,” Simon says. “We need more affordable housing close to BART stations. And folks in Hercules, they want access. It’s very challenging for me to tell people that for every mile they want, we’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars.”
As for how to achieve these enormous goals, “I have to be audacious and crazy,” she says. “Patriarchy is a very real thing. But the power and resiliency of women is untapped and unmatched, and as I see women take power in elected positions and claiming their places — whether it’s on the PTA, or in their religious groups — it makes me so hopeful moving forward. I have deep faith that the people that will take on the untruths in our system will be women. We’ve thrown off our aprons, now we’re finding our gavels.”