Bay Area policymaker, human rights advocate and now Mills graduate Lateefah Simon will be representing the Class of 2017 as commencement speaker on May 13, at the same ceremony where she will receive her own bachelor’s degree.
Simon is an elected official on the BART Board of Directors, the president of the Akonadi Foundation and was named a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow in 2003. Since she was a teenager, Simon has been an organizer and advocate for disadvantaged women in the Bay Area, working as a community leader long before she began at Mills.
“I spent most of my life since my teenage years working on the ground with young women who were in the criminal justice system and the foster care system and those who were in the sex trade and drug trade, not to get those women out, but really to provide organization and political space for sisters to come together,” Simon said. “I was one of those girls and really struggled as a young person, was a teen mom, and found my leadership in organizing and action work.”
Even before attending Mills, Simon had made a place for herself on campus. By age 19, Simon was regularly presenting to Mills students on gender and queer justice and political organizing. After a number of presentations, the Mills administration approached her and encouraged her to apply.
“I never imagined that I could go to college,” Simon said. “When the Mills folks reached out to me to see if I would apply I, of course, was startled, because my job in the world has been getting young women out of the system and getting them to college. Whatever privilege I had in the world was to push for other young people.”
Simon enrolled shortly thereafter, and attended classes in between full time work and parenting two children. In 2012, she graduated in absentia with only two classes left, planning to return the next year to complete her final requirements. But before she could return, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. For three years, her attention was diverted to her work and her husband’s illness, preventing her from finishing her final courses and her degree.
When her husband passed away three years later, Mills students, friends and distant acquaintances alike, arrived at his funeral, ready and willing to lend their support.
“When I went out, I saw all these Mills women. They were the first to show up for my husband’s funeral,” Simon said. “For all the people graduating, I don’t think you know what you’re gonna have until you leave. There’s a very deep commitment that Mills women have to each other, and you don’t realize it when you’re struggling in the M Center and you want to kill everybody.”
Simon was finally able to return to Mills this semester and finish her few remaining credits through a Public Policy independent study with Associate Professor Mark Henderson. Henderson was Simon’s advisor when she started at Mills, and this semester the two of them have been working together again on a specially designed course called “Environmental Science for BART Commissioners.” Henderson recalls classes with Simon when she first began at Mills.
“[Simon] is pretty unique in that she came to Mills already as a MacArthur grant winner. As a young professor, that’s a little intimidating!” Henderson said. “But she was always quite humble about saying ‘I’m here because I want to up my skills in various areas and I’m learning from my classmates and my professors,’ so I found her a joy to work with.”
Though she has been attending classes at Mills now for over a decade, Simon doesn’t feel quite ready to leave.
“I started going to Mills a really long time ago,” Simon laughed. “I feel like me and Mills never want to really part.”
Simon’s selection came after a survey was sent out by the class council of 2017, requesting both votes for possible commencement speakers and insight on the kind of attributes that graduating seniors were looking for in a speaker. Renée Jadushlever, chief of staff at the President’s Office at Mills, was among the committee that decided on Simon as this year’s speaker.
“We started looking at some of the attributes [students wanted]: leadership qualities, a dynamic speaker, someone who involves social justice in their work, either in their professional work or in their private associations, ” Jadushlever said. “Lateefah Simon’s name came up and she’s really a local, Bay Area icon.”
When asked by President Hillman if she would be interested in speaking at Commencement, Simon accepted on the spot. Simon has said she is “honored” to represent Mills. She continues to strive in her everyday life to promote the educational space that Mills provides for women, and to extend opportunities for full-time, higher education to women everywhere.
“I really am interested in letting folks know about this beautiful and amazing and complicated space in East Oakland,” Simon said. “Mills never gave up on me so I can’t give up on Mills.”