Zenaida Mendez named new president of New York’s National Organization of Women
Story by Debralee Santos and Robin Elisabeth Kilmer
Photos by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer
Mendez (far left), who wishes to see more women in office, attended Assemblymember Gabriela Rosa’s swearing-in.
Zenaida Mendez’s infectious smile and easy laughter are contagious.
But don’t be fooled.
The woman is a fighter.
“Her work speaks for itself. Every time she has been called upon, or she sees a need, she is the first to get involved, and she won’t give up until the issue is resolved,” said New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat. “That, or the other side gives up. She is tireless.”
This past November, Mendez was elected as president of the New York chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW-NYS), which has sought to advance the lives of women, with a large focus on challenging or promoting legislation. NOW also focuses on anti-racism, and pushes for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) rights.
It is the largest women's political action organization in New York, representing over 14,000 women and men in 24 chapters.
In addition to serving as president of NOW-NYS, Mendez is the Director of External Affairs at the Manhattan Neighborhood Network; the president and founder of the National Dominican Women’s Caucus, and a mother of three daughters.
She is also the first Dominican woman to be elected to the executive leadership post at NOW-NYS.
Mendez is busy – and humble.
“I’m glad members of New York State feel that I can help more the agenda forward,” she said, speaking after a surprise reception was held for her on Thurs., Jan. 10th by community leaders at Columbia University Medical Center.
Zenaida Mendez, the new president of NOW-NYS, will be pushing for the women’s agenda in Albany.
At the breakfast, many of the leaders throughout northern Manhattan and the Bronx with whom Mendez has partnered were present: City Comptroller John Liu; Senator Espaillat; Councilmember Ydanis Rodríguez; Assemblymember Gabriela Rosa; Hostos’s Director of International Programs and Special Assistant for Community Relations Ana Isabel García Reyes.
“She is an extraordinary example of what we can and should achieve,” said Hostos’ García Reyes.
Ever since her election, Mendez has been shuttling between Albany and New York City, where she works full time. She had just arrived the evening before from a long day in the state capital following the Governor’s State of the State address.
“I feel like I’m three different people,” she said with a laugh.
But that’s fine by Mendez, who thinks sleep is overrated: “I can sleep when I’m dead.”
Mendez has long been at the forefront of advancing women’s issues. She has already served as NOW’s Director of Racial Diversity Programs. She helped organize the 2004 March to Save Women’s Lives, NOW’s second Women of Color summit, and a 250-person march from El Paso, Texas to Juarez, Mexico to protest the femicide of 400 women in the Mexican city.
Moreover, the national political discussion has, of late, been rife with topics that relate to women’s rights.
Birth control was central in the discussion of healthcare reform; Romney spoke to having “binders” full of women; and throughout the elections, various theories about “legitimate” rape and pregnancy from various candidates emerged, as was the case with Missouri’s Todd Akin, Republican candidate for senator.
“That was heard all over the world and some people might believe it. It’s very dangerous to us—not just to women, but to society in general,” said Mendez, shaking her head in response.
But the president remained optimistic, however, after the State of the State address and the announcement of the Women’s Equality Act, which would promote equal pay, stop pregnancy discrimination, and strengthen human trafficking laws and orders of protection.
Mendez argues that progress in New York State will lead to progress in the rest of the country.
“Any decision New York makes will affect the rest of the country,” said Mendez. “We need to not just protect our agenda, but we have to move it forward.”
And despite strides made, she believes there is still much to fight for.
“This is work that never ends. We have a population that is growing constantly, and we have to constantly have to keep putting out information,” she remarked.
Two of the issues Mendez will focus on, reproductive rights and workforce equality, are issues that have been on the legislative table for a long time. Moreover, she is eager to address adequate access to childcare, which is not as present in the national debate, but is discussed in households, and holds dominant sway on women’s lives.
“Childcare is my number one issue. Women have jobs, but cannot pay for childcare. When you include all the expenses at the end of the month, it doesn’t add up,” she said.
According to a 2012 report by Child Care Aware of America, the average cost of daycare in New York State is over $10,000 a year. That is one-third the average annual income of New York State, which, according to the most recent Census, is just above $30,000.
And while Mendez was left optimistic by the State of the State speech, the day also made clear the work that needed to get done.
“It’s incredible that in 2013, there was only one woman out of seven men on the stage,” said Mendez, referring to State Democratic Conference Leader and State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins. “We are 52 percent of the people, and we give birth to the other 48 percent, so what is the problem?”
It is, in her opinion, a matter of focus.
“What needs to be done in this country is change our priorities. Our priorities are not in sync with what our society needs,” she said, citing the disproportionate amount of taxpayer dollars—20 percent—spent on the military.
Mendez also hopes to build a strong coalition of women’s rights groups. Latinas for Justice and the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee are two that came to mind. She also wants to see more young women getting involved, and forming groups on their college campuses.
And she is seeking to engage more men as members.
“It’s going to take this generation to move [the agenda] forward," she said. "And we need everyone to do so together."
For more information on NOW-NYS’s work, please visit www.nownys.org.