Lateefah Simon, a nationally-known fighter for the people, graced the Derryberry Hall Auditorium stage Oct. 20 with a mission to motivate Tennessee Tech students to not only ask how they can improve themselves, but also how they can improve society.
From the second Simon stepped onto the stage, wearing pink horn-rimmed glasses and a neat pile of braids twisted atop her head, to the closing Q&A, her infectious energy did not waver.
Simon did not have an easy start to life; she was not handed success. Before she was an award-winning speaker, Simon was a high school dropout with a job at Taco Bell, drug-addicted parents and a baby. This didn’t stop her from clawing her way out of “the ghetto” and becoming an abundantly successful businesswoman who has impacted thousands of lives.
Simon attributed her success to reminding herself of two simple questions: “If not you, who? If not now, when?” She asked the same of her audience, urging them to stand up for what they wanted and to fight for what they believed in.
“I ask you to think of that one thing, that one thing that wakes you up in the morning, that policy or problem that gets under your skin,” Simon said. “I want you to ask yourself who you see changing it. Ask yourself who has that passion and that fire in your belly.”
Simon has helped all people: the poor, immigrants, people of color, incarcerated women, women involved in prostitution and sex trafficking, et cetera. Her career of helping began with a small program called Tenderloin, which supplied condoms, needles, bleach and food to troubled women. Simon got to know these women and encouraged them to make something more of themselves. One woman, who Simon described as “a red-headed siren smoking a crack pipe,” has since become a physician because of Simon’s caring inspiration.
Since then, Simon has gone on to graduate college, became executive director of the Center for Young Women's Development, and has won many awards, including making Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine’s Power List. Currently, she is the program director at the Rosenberg Foundation in California.
“What I want is to push you to wonder what is stopping you,” Simon said. “You’re time is now.”
The audience heard. During the Q&A, a young woman asked about a correctional program for women incarcerated in the area. In response, Simon said that she didn’t know, but that she would find out. She went on to say, “And if not, we might need to start one.”
She described the process necessary to start a program and the positive impact of making the effort to see change.
Tierra Allgood, a secondary education major, said she knew she would get a lot out the event, but had not planned for the calling that Simon’s words had for her.
“I thought she was wonderful,”Allgood said. “Not because I’m black or because I’m a woman, but because it was a message everyone needs to hear. I needed to hear it. Sometimes people lose their drive. I think Lateefah drove everyone here tonight.”