Lateefah Simon isn't the picture of motherhood found in Hallmark cards and advertisements for the perfect gift for Mom. Lateefah, now 28, got pregnant when she was a teenager living in the projects of San Francisco. She was born to a teen mother who has struggled with a crack addiction and unemployment her whole life.
Lateefah could have easily become a statistic. Over 80 percent of Americans living in poverty are single mothers and their families. Single young moms are disproportionately undereducated, underemployed, socially isolated and scorned. Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens" have become Kanye West's "gold diggers." Ten years ago, during the welfare reform debate, two members of Congress compared single mothers to animals.
And so it was that Lateefah, pregnant before she'd graduated high school with no boyfriend or stable income, was ashamed and afraid. Lateefah hid her pregnancy from friends, family and her part-time employer, a non-profit organization that happened to provide services to young women like Lateefah. When her belly was finally too big to disguise underneath the oversized sweatshirts she'd taken to wearing, Lateefah nervously told her boss.
Her employer's response was not to reprimand or shun her for setting a bad example, but rather to provide Lateefah with a full-time job and benefits including full medical coverage and parenting classes.
Lateefah was simply afforded what America believes is an inalienable right, a chance to succeed.
A few years after her baby girl, Aminah, was born, Lateefah became the Executive Director of this community organization that didn't give up on her. Under her leadership, the Center for Young Women's Development has quadruped its budget to $1.2 million and won national acclaim for providing jobs, training and reproductive health education to girls who've been incarcerated and on the streets. Aminah, now ten, is a straight A student who loves ballet and books.
Lateefah recently passed the reigns of leadership of the Center to another young mom who came up through its ranks. Lateefah is now pursuing her B.A and continuing to make an impact on community services and public policies that affect the lives of young mothers.
It also bears mentioning that, along the way, Lateefah won a prestigious MacArthur "genius" award for her important work with girls, including single young moms. But this is a part of her story that Lateefah prefers to leave out: "It's not that I'm not grateful to have been so honored. It's just that I don't believe that what I've achieved should be considered 'exceptional' or the feat of a 'genius.'"
Rather, Lateefah says, she was given an equal opportunity and the resources that every mother -- poor or rich, young or old, black, brown or white -- needs and deserves. And through the Center for Young Women's Development, she aimed to provide the same opportunities and resources to other young moms like herself.
But for the caring of one small non-profit, it wouldn't have gone down that way. Lateefah might still be living in the projects, in abject poverty, and unable to adequately support her family. All the young women whose lives she's touched might be there as well. Lateefah's story has a different ending because she was valued and honored -- as all mothers should be.
When lawmakers and pundits say that providing social welfare programs to single young moms encourages illegitimate pregnancies and when they dichotomize "the right to life" versus "the right to choose," they fail to see young moms and their children as fully human. They fail to see that, for young, low-income women, the rights are one and the same: to choose when and when not to have a child and the right to raise their children -- if they do choose to have them -- in health and wellness.
Too often we all fail to see that when economically and socially marginalized mothers are valued and provided with education and opportunities to make healthy choices, they give back to their families, their communities and their country far more than they are given -- like all mothers do.
On Mother's Day, and year round, we must honor all mothers equally. This is especially true for mothers who, right now, are raising a generation of children who will lead us all, one way or another.