Working In Global Health: Justin Mendoza

U.S. Advocacy Lead Reflects on Career, Social Justice

Posted on Oct 14, 2021

Justin Mendoza
Photo courtesy of Justin Mendoza.

These days, Justin Mendoza could be found meeting with senators and representatives in the halls of Congress, advocating for legislation to strengthen public health in the United States and beyond. As advocacy lead for PIH-US, it is part of his job to track legislation and keep up with lawmakers, always looking for an opportunity to advance PIH’s mission—health care as a human right—at the highest levels of government.

But his career in advocacy began somewhere else: on college campuses.

Mendoza started out as a community organizer with PIH Engage—PIH’s grassroots network of college students and young people in the U.S. and Mexico, organizing campuses and communities in support of global health initiatives. That time with PIH Engage was formative to Mendoza’s approach to advocacy now, helping him understand how to mobilize people and push for change—together.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we sat down with Mendoza for our Working In Global Health series, which spotlights PIH staff who have dedicated their careers to making a global impact. In this wide-ranging conversation, we chatted about what drew Mendoza to a career in public health, how his roots in community organizing shaped his approach to advocacy today, and what he has been up to outside of work.

Since July 2020, you’ve been a key member of PIH’s Advocacy team, pushing for policies to advance global health at the national level. How did you come to join the team and what is your role?  

I joined PIH because I believe strongly in our mission and vision: to deliver a preferential option for the poor. I believe that we need an equitable health care system all over the world, and I am driven by the work PIH does to strengthen health care systems and develop policies that can help. Before PIH, I was working in Washington, D.C., on legislation to improve health care broadly, and the COVID-19 pandemic convinced me I needed to find a mission to serve that was more centered on equity.  

Now, as our U.S. Health Care Advocacy Lead, my role is to build advocacy strategy designed to advance health equity and policy. I represent PIH with decisionmakers mostly at the federal level and guide a team of skilled experts to build out campaigns and strategies that improve the policy landscape for the communities we serve.  

You started out as a community organizer with PIH back in 2015. Can you share more about that experience and how organizing at the grassroots level shaped your perspective and approach to advocacy today? 

I believe firmly that anyone who aspires to advocate for change should start out as a community organizer. When I worked as a community organizer with our grassroots volunteer team, PIH Engage, I helped co-design advocacy campaigns, fundraising work, and community-building practices. As an organizer, it was my job to help empower people that care deeply about our mission and give them a way to help us build a broader movement for the right to health.  

The key to being a community organizer is to understand the way that power flows in our society, politics, and communities and to channel that power for the issues you care about. It means building relationships with neighbors, friends, colleagues, and strangers in order to push for the right to health. At its core, community organizing with PIH Engage gave me an inside look into what it means to be a part of the accompaniment, walking side by side with those we serve or partner with, that is core to PIH’s work. 

Now, PIH Engage is even more essential than it was during my days on the team. PIH Engage is made up of volunteers ranging from high school students to young professionals. Engagers are helping us shape the public's understanding of health equity, raise essential funds for the Maternal Center of Excellence in Sierra Leone, and advocate for health equity.   

What is your favorite part about working at PIH?   

I don’t even know where to start on this one. PIH has a mission I love, too many talented colleagues to count, and a leadership team that is dedicated to making our vision a reality. I also really like the opportunity to be creative with our work. For instance, we now host a monthly Health Justice Call, which my team and I put together, and we get to bring social movements from around the country to a space where they can share perspectives and strengthen their movements together. (P.S., you can sign up for our October call here).  

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you?  

Hispanic Heritage Month is a moment for me to reflect on what my culture is and what my connection is back to that culture. My family is from the Dominican Republic and has a history of resistance. In the days of the former President Trujillo, family members fled the country out of fear of retaliation because they opposed his violent punishments and practices in the country. A family rumor even says that one of our relatives was on a government list of enemies of the state at the time. Now, as an advocate, I carry on our time-bound tradition of pushing back against policies that are oppressive to those around me. This month also coincides with important dates in my life, including my father’s birthday and the day he passed. I feel like during this month, I take a few more minutes than usual to connect, breathe, and pay attention to where I came from and where I am going. It definitely helps to work at an organization with fantastic colleagues from all over the world who celebrate and reflect during this month as well.   

How does your culture affect your work and how you approach it?  

My culture is all about family, closeness, and caring about the people around you. It is a part of my own empathetic approach to work and guides my value system. I think about what the policies I advocate for would mean for my family.  

Representation in the public health, political, and advocacy fields is growing. I find that when you look across the Hispanic culture, broadly, you find many people working in health care from promotoras (community health workers), to nurses and doctors, to health policy professionals—like Xavier Becerra, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I am happy to be one among many others with shared cultural priorities and values. 

How can public health professionals better serve Hispanic and Latino communities in the U.S.? 

There are two key principles that every public health professional should remember when working with Hispanic and Latino communities. First, we’re not one simple culture; we represent many types of people, with many hopes, dreams, and values. So you should still get to know the community you aim to serve at a local level, rather than generalizing across everyone who checks the “Hispanic/Latino” box on the census.  

Second, remember that in many communities, language remains a key barrier, particularly for older generations. We have to plan for the translation of materials to the language spoken by the communities we serve, and the best way to do that is to work with a local. 

What do you like to do in your spare time? We heard you have some pretty adorable dogs at home and fun wall art in your office. 

Well, the dogs do take up a lot of my spare time. They have their own Instagram, and they’re both Husky mixes, so you can imagine the amount of fur there is to clean. I also spend time engaging with social justice movements that I care about. Living in Washington, D.C. means there are always protests and gatherings to attend, so I like to do that as much as I can. I also hold a position on the board of directors for Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, which is a student-driven nonprofit that works to make sure medicines are affordable for all.  

My wife and I really love to entertain as well, so we’re constantly having gatherings (particularly pre-COVID) with friends in the area for holidays, sports seasons (hockey and football), and big political events (like the State of the Union). During all of these, I get to test my cooking skills with new recipes and ideas!  

Beyond that, I enjoy running seasonally and recently picked up my guitar after letting it sit in storage for far too long. As far as I am concerned, as long as family and friends can be involved, any hobby is worth doing!  

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