A Visit with Belén Mendoza
Vice President for Campaigns
Inquiring minds want to know: What’s the correct pronunciation of your first name?
That’s a fair question. People want to put the emphasis on the first syllable, but the accent is on the second — where there’s an accent mark. The e’s are short e’s. So it’s beh-LEN.
And you’re from Argentina?
That’s right. My father was a union leader in Buenos Aires, active in politics. He ran afoul of the dictatorship of the 1970s, so we moved to a small town, Eldorado, Misiones in Argentina. When democracy returned, my parents decided to move again because inflation was out of control. So we came to Miami not so much for political reasons as for economic ones. My parents had two daughters, and it was important to them that their daughters enjoyed the same opportunities any man would have. Which brought us to the U.S.
We advocate by telling real stories of real people, we give a human face to the issue. That has always been powerful, but it is especially powerful today.
How did you become involved in public affairs?
I started volunteering for campaigns in the late 1990s in Florida. I worked on the Gore-Lieberman campaign in south Florida. My parents never believed politics could be a “desk career,” so I got a degree in business — even though I was active in College Democrats. But I moved to Washington, D.C., anyway. I didn’t have a job, and I didn’t know anybody.
Then what happened?
I got a job at the Democratic National Committee and worked on campaigns in Florida and across the country for more than 15 years. Before I came to AARP, I worked as internal communication manager for Microsoft Latin America, DCI and multiple democratic presidential, statewide and issues campaigns. My passion had always been to create positive social change. I really appreciate what we can do at AARP, especially in these polarized times.
I’m in the campaign unit, which is separate from the government affairs unit. My unit does advocacy and outreach with our members. We don’t endorse candidates. We are nonpartisan. We don’t have a PAC. As it turns out, my boss — John Hishta — is a career Republican, and I’m a career Democrat. So on behalf of our members, and the 50-plus population, we work on issues that are important to our members with a nonpartisan approach that we all agree on, regardless of our previous party affiliation. We want a sound Social Security system, for instance, and a health care system that is good for aging Americans. And what we found works well is to get back to the basic idea similar to that old adage about how “all politics is local.”
How does that really work?
We advocate by telling real stories of real people, we give a human face to the issue. That has always been powerful, but it is especially powerful today. It cuts through a lot of the partisanship and polarization. We quickly learned in our unit that more and more advocacy needs to be run like a political campaign. You might ask what that means since we are nonpartisan. It refers to the structure of the campaign. Defining your goal and having a true integration between grassroots, grasstops, influentials, field work and communications will lead to success. I know that some people think it is easier for AARP to have influence because we have 38 million members. That’s a lot of people. But what should be understood is that we have 50 state offices, and none of them have large staffs. Together we create nationwide “surround sound,” but individually in their own state they work to influence at the local, statewide and federal level.
How we do what we do can be replicated by smaller organizations — as long as they remember the fundamental truth about goal setting. You can have huge numbers of members, or all the money in the world, or no money at all. You can know all the tactics there are, or just a few. But the key to being successful is to know exactly what you’re trying to accomplish – know your goal! If you don’t first identify your goal, all the tactics in the world – even if integrated properly – result in a lot of random activities with very limited success.
Reach Belen at 202.487.6687 or BMendoza@aarp.org.
Read more “Visit with … ” profiles in the Impact archives.