Bolivia, Interviews, Musings, Social Work

A Man of the People: Bolivia’s Rolando Mendoza

March 4, 2012

Today, my thoughtful, easy going inspiration of a husband shares his write up of a recent interview with one of Bolivia’s finest leaders. Both men are humble and sincere, less the type to write for the world and more the type to be out living their convictions on local streets, day after day.
I’m grateful to share their story with you. -Bethany

A Man of the People: My Interview with Public Servant Rolando Mendoza
By Ted Rydmark

While in Bolivia, we spent a week on work-exchange with the Mendoza-Donlon Family.

Rolando Mendoza has extensive experience as a public servant. He is the former mayor of Mallasa (a suburb town of La Paz), the former Head of Social Services for the Municipality of La Paz (metro population 2.3 million), and is the current Person in Charge of Planning and Investment for the Ministry of Planning for the Bolivian Government.

When he was elected Mayor of Mallasa, he was the first non-party “man of the people” to serve in that office. His success as mayor resulted in his appointment a Head of Social Services for La Paz.

I took the opportunity sit down with Rolando and ask him about his experiences as a civic politician. Special thanks to Bethany for recording the conversation and to Rolando’s wife, Emma, for translating.

Ted: What was most challenging about working as head of Social Services in La Paz?
Rolando: It was most challenging to really know what was going on and to develop plans to transform the situation and make it better. Because we were working for the benefit of young people, children, and old people, I had this desperation to really make their lives better and make an impact – fast. I desired that my programs would become institutionalized and consolidated and would last over time.

Rolando’s position lasted four years, during which time he accomplished much. As the Head of Social Services for the Municipality of La Paz, Rolando’s responsibilities included five broad areas: Sports, Health (including infrastructure, equipment, and future planning), Education (including the planning and building of schools), Citizen Rights (equivalent to Civil Rights), and Citizen Security. During this time he was directly responsible for over 800 municipal staff.

Ted: What was the biggest area of need in La Paz and Bolivia when you took office?
Rolando: Violence against women and children.

Ted: What did you do about that?
Rolando: I worked on many technical aspects, but also many conceptual and emotional aspects. First of all, I had to measure what was actually happening and assess the needs. [For instance], what kinds of cases? How many? From what social classes? And I had to see how the city was dealing with these cases of violence over time, and then I wanted to revolutionize that service. Because, when I first came in, they [the city officials] treated different cases of violence separately, without taking into account that many were happening in the same household.

As a result, Rolando established an integrated platform for family services. In the past, services were so compartmentalized that multiple instances of violence occurred in the same home by the same person to several victims without officials ever knowing the full picture. Officials were not sharing information regarding instances of violence in the home, because reports involving children, women, and the elderly were handled in different departments.

Rolando continued: But [establishing an integrated platform] required a lot of background research and I needed to look at models that worked in other places. For example, I went for a course in the UK. I looked at citizen security, inter-family violence, and while I was there, sports as well. From a municipality standpoint, they all worked together. And that seemed to be the right model to follow and that’s what I implemented in Bolivia.

Implementing an integrated platform wasn’t easy. It challenged the status quo. It also challenged the biases of good people.

Rolando continued: We had to negotiate with many groups and convince the politicians to change the way they were working, to have a more integrated approach. For example, there were feminist groups who didn’t want to work in that way. They [the feminists] and many NGOs believed that you have to deal with children separately. And I always used to tell them about a story very close to me: Giovanna, our goddaughter, when she got a phone call one night saying, “Come back to your house, your brother who has drinking problems is abusing your grandmother and sister who live in the house.” It doesn’t make sense – would you take the grandmother, child, and sister off to different places? It was an example that this kind of violence affects multiple people in the family.

Emma added: This is an example of putting people into boxes that are convenient for your particular group (in this case the feminists) and [convenient for] the funding that you have. Is not a grandmother a woman? Are not children woman as well?

In the end, to make integration possible, key women in the city were enlisted for support, and things gradually began to change.

This concept struck me. How often to we whisk victims away into separate places in order to address their unique needs, without thought to how families who suffer together should perhaps be allowed to heal together? Specifically, I’ve seen this in foster care (often for lack of adequate places to keep siblings together rather than split them up). Further, how often does the narrow definition of an NGO or nonprofit’s mission statement prevent them from effectively working together with other agencies toward a better, more ultimate goal?

Ted: How has LaPaz changed in the last decade?
Rolando: La Paz has changed a lot. For example, when I started, 48% of school children had malnutrition. I introduced a full school breakfast program and malnutrition when down to 8% in four years (survey conducted by Save the Children). This had an effect on the children’s attention span: 20% better performance in the schools!

There were other goals as well. In Education, there was a huge lack of classrooms and infrastructure. So we built schools everywhere. We took out a big loan from the World Bank. We built all the classrooms that La Paz was lacking.

Ted: How many schools?
Rolando: I was managing about 100 schools and we added about 80. I was appointed the Person Responsible for the whole health network and named the Director of the Health Committee. In La Paz, there were hospitals available at that time with the best equipment, the best doctors in Bolivia. But La Paz, despite all this, had some of the worst health indicators in the country: women dying in child birth for instance. [There was supposed to be] a referral system – the doctors working as a network, from the health center to doctor to specialist, and so on. But it was a lie.

So we built new health hubs so that the whole referral system would actually work better – better sharing of information. And we built new hospitals. What was lacking? A woman who was pregnant would go to the local health post but never be referred to a maternity specialist. So we built new intermediate systems that could refer them to doctors and specialists if needed.

We [wanted to] empower women, so we added natural birthing rooms to new hospitals. 

There was terrible problems with mistreatment of old people in health services. So we formed a brigade of old people who went to monitor the quality of the health services. They were called Brigades, but sometimes I called them Gossipy Old People. They wore uniforms: yellow waistcoats. They were The Brigades of Monitoring the Protection of Old People. The doctors and nurses treated [elderly patients] differently after the brigades entered the hospital. And the self-esteem of the old people on the Brigade went through the roof – they felt completely dis-empowered before that.

[Regarding citizen security], we introduced community policing. We started it in one of the worst, most dangerous zones of La Paz. The reported crimes went down 50% in one year with the community policing model. To implement this change, I used a model from criminologists from Harvard: The Theory of the Broken Window.

These simple yet profound solutions impressed me.

By including Birthing Rooms in new hospital plans, Rolando opened a can of worms. Administrators and hospital architects believed it was less efficient, but Rolando believed it gave power back to women.  And by creating a functional referral system, Rolando utilized city resources to a greater degree.

The latest, greatest equipment and technology has no positive effect if communication does not work in the customer/client’s best interest.

As a public servant, Rolando is a part of government, but it is so refreshing that he suggested solutions that did not necessarily require more government to implement. They were “bottom up” not “top down” solutions. I thought later, how often do we suggest that more money and more government are the solution? How often to we rely on “specialists” and people with degrees to solve our problems?

Ted: What kinds of people in Bolivia and La Paz are the most understanding and compassionate to the needs of the poor?
Rolando: It depends on which of the five sectors we’re talking about. For instance we made an alliance with the National Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy. The illiterate person was almost always a women, almost always poor, and almost always indigenous. So how did we go about forming alliances? Often these women were ashamed to admit they were illiterate. So we worked with women’s groups in neighborhoods. These women in the neighborhoods became the army to disseminate the [literacy] program. All the people on the brigades who taught people to read and write were volunteers.

Ted: Why?
Rolando: There was no one to teach the older people. All the teachers were in schools. We had to inspire people in the community to volunteer to teach people, to keep people interested. This was a huge campaign.

The people who were teaching were often from their own community. The classrooms were full of older women wanting to learn to read and write. For example, Maxima (who helps run the kitchen at the nursery) – her husband wouldn’t allow her to go to classes to learn to read and write. But we [decided to] measure success by whether the women were IN the classroom, that is a win! There is learning going on. And lately there’s been an invisible negotiation in the household to have the husband allow the woman to go to the class. She’s won!

Whilst we had allies who supported us, other groups were against it. The health workers union was very much against the work I was doing (because it didn’t serve their interests). For example, everybody in Bolivia works an 8 hour day, but health workers work 6. When I suggested that they work 8, they were against it. Recently, (two days ago) there was a new law passed that everyone has to work an 8 hour day.

Ted: Who do you emulate in your job?
Rolando: The kindness and compassion that Emma has toward people.

Emma blushed and for a moment refused to translate. But we got the picture. Emma inspires Rolando, and vice versa. They spur each other on to greater, more compassionate work.

Ted: What cities did you learn from?

Rolando: From many examples from many different places and projects and programs. For example, I built this park here in Mallasa, and one of the things I built was a very small paddling pool I saw while in Malaysia. Not many people in La Paz know how to swim, so this was a good solution.

In sports, the stadium in Manchester. I used the model of recreational sport training and then competition. My idea was not to make world champions, but to get people doing sports. We established 120 neighborhood sporting schools. We had sport days for women, all women would go out of their offices and do sports. And for old people too.

For education, I saw in Bogota, Columbia that the schools were really nice and well maintained. In La Paz, there was a lot of destruction and graffiti in the schools. I asked the teacher – how do you keep the classroom so nice? The response? The children look after the school very well because it is their second home. So we had a campaign called Operation School My Second Home, and we gave prizes to the schools that were the best maintained at the end of the year. Whiteboards and computers were given as an incentive. The worst ones received a lemon. It was a big deal on the news. They’d go to the headmaster of the school and give them a lemon! The teachers, the parents, they were so ashamed that they made plans to not get a lemon next year.

How creative! And how often do we perpetuate among our students the idea of entitlement, that you deserve what everyone else has, regardless of how you behave. Perhaps, sometimes we deserve lemons. And perhaps, sometimes, lemons inspire us to earn chalkboards and computers.

Ted: What do you see next for La Paz and Bolivia?
Rolando: There has been a lot of attention on improving infrastructure, and now it must shift to improving quality of services, the way people are treated.

Ted: Civil Rights?
Rolando: Yes, exactly. The focus needs to be on rights and people’s attitudes. Attitudes need to change so that they serve people in a better way. More understanding so that they know how people are feeling.

For example, I promoted a decree to protect the rights of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgenders, because there was so much homophobia. We had an exhibition to show from the womb what is was like to be a person living in La Paz and what services were available.

Emma added: Rolando was good at including the most excluded groups. At this festival, they had an area for urban tribes to participate (emos, goths, punks, etc). These groups had never been invited to participate in a public place before! They took the chance to describe in words why they were the way they were. The LGBT groups wanted to do a fashion show – fabulous transvestites walking the catwalk, attracting people of all ages! It really changed attitudes. Before, people were very closed and homophobic. After this, they began to see each other as people. So it was something to formalize that you can’t discriminate against people who live in your city: everybody belongs.

Ted: Are the LGBT groups pretty suppressed people in La Paz?
Emma: Not any more! They have a Gay Pride Parade and it is a family event. People feel safe to be a lot more open about their sexuality. The major problem that people don’t talk about is child prostitution, especially little boys.

Ted: It’s a big problem here?
Emma: Yes. Nobody talks about the boys; everybody talks about the girls. It’s linked to development and poverty; when there’s a lot of unemployment, this happens. It’s reduced over the past years.

Ted to Rolando: How would people describe you in just a few words?
Rolando: Lots of enthusiasm and passion and creativity to transform reality.

Emma: Creativity; he’s a dreamer.

Yes, and Rolando is a visionary, a seer. He can see what needs to happen and has the skills to help people get there.

Ted: Thank you!
Rolando: Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to remember things I’ve forgotten.

When I first became mayor, I invited about 30 people to dream. One of those people was a woman named Rosemary, who is now the mayor of Mallasa. She wants to get the dreamers back together! The first time the dreamers met, we wanted to see Mallasa green. Now there are parks. We have the biggest park in La Paz! It’s available to people who aren’t fortunate enough to have a garden.

The concept behind this is that if you don’t dream and have a vision for the future you’re just doing a lot of activities and you don’t have a dream of what you want to get to. So to have a shared dream is your biggest comparative advantage when you’re working together like this. So to transform dreams to meet people’s demands but also to make politicians and people who assign funds to fall in love with the ideas – because a lot of it was very technical. To budget, administrate, manage people.

Rolando is a humble man who wouldn’t have talked about his career had I not interviewed him. And after our time together, I sincerely believe we need more people like him in government. Since the last two national elections in the USA, I’ve been basically fed up. Fed put with top-down “solutions.” Fed up with money always being the answer and never working. Fed up with breaches of morality. Fed up with corruption on both sides. Fed up with SIDES.

But I have hope. Not in national politics (I care less and less each day), but in the local leaders. The power of the local leader is more limited, but that is good, because it prevents corruption. The governance of the local leader allows them to focus on more specific needs, the needs of the neighborhood and the community. And local leaders, usually, can be reached by the people. Most commissioners and mayors can be reached, talked to, communicated with (my mayor back home reads my tweets). And this is a good thing.

There is much room for humility in local politics. Humble men and women can remain humble, and still be electable, in part because it isn’t driven by big personalities and the party system. I look at the presidential race this year, and I seriously doubt it is possible to be elected without selling your soul to a corporation, be it Obama, Romney, or anyone else.

For all of his faults, I’ve been a supporter of Portland Mayor Sam Adams throughout his mayorship. Why? Because when I watch the way he interacts with people, the people, I’m impressed. He gives everyone their chance to speak. He responds with respect. He truly listens. And while I don’t always agree with his decisions, I respect the process he goes through in making these decisions. I respect the accountability he offers the public, even and especially when he makes mistakes. In addition, he is a competent leader. His talents serve the city well.

Rolando is that kind of leader, a man of the people, humble, smart, someone who listens, dreams, challenges the status quo, and finds solutions that include people.

One’s first week as mayor is usually spent sitting in an office in a suit. The first week Rolando was mayor, everyone gathered around his office to get in his good graces. But Rolando couldn’t be found! Where was he? He was in the nearby agricultural valley, working with the farmers, setting up defenses against the flooding river which was ruining their crops. He spent not just a day or two, but a whole week, working with the people, creating a chain gang to move stones across the river. In the end, the group effort worked. The chain gang was an inventive idea and it helped the farmers use an efficient solution to successfully combat the flooding.

During his mayorship, Rolando got farmers who had never been in the town hall in the town hall and he got politicians who had never worked with the people with the people. Did politicians quit as a result of this challenge? Actually, no! They were upset at first but in the end they really enjoyed it.

To this day, the people still talk about building the river defenses with Rolando.

For more stories of Social Work and the Mendoza-Donlan family in Bolivia, see:

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  • Reply rachel carlson March 4, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Wow, wow, WOW. What a great interview helping build awareness and being advocates for making things HAPPEN for communities in need. Building community is not a trend that comes and goes, it is a NECESSITY. Cheers to you!

    • Reply twoOregonians March 8, 2012 at 12:26 pm

      Rachel, so glad you were encouraged by the read! Yes, we must find ways to consistently work toward progress, despite the ups and downs of fashionable causes. It’s a gift to have admirable leaders to emulate!

  • Reply Magdalen Donlan March 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    Gosh what an interview with Rolando. I always knew that he was a special man with great integrity, very modest, and I have just learnt so much more about him!! Thank you… Rolando also happens to be married to my daughter Emma, and I see for myself just what a great team they are!

    • Reply twoOregonians March 8, 2012 at 12:33 pm

      Magdalen, what a beautiful family, and what great examples your grandkids have in their mother and father : ) Thank you so much for reading!

      • Reply Magdalen Donlan March 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm

        Emma told me that your visit was just wonderful, she thought that you were just the most loveliest of people she had ever met, Yes, we are very proud of our daughter and of course Rolando Mendoza… and our two beautiful grandchildren are just like little ambassadors of love and sharing! We miss them all soooooooooo much!

  • Reply Judy Loucks March 4, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    very interesting, Ted. insightful questions and answers.

    • Reply twoOregonians March 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm

      It’s so fun to travel with him and listen to the conversations he starts with fascinating people! : )

  • Reply Heather March 4, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    Sooo, are you going to run for local government when you get back? ;) Sounds like you were inspired! Really incredible to hear how Rolando tackled huge issues and actually got results. Yay for dreamers!

    • Reply tedrydmark March 6, 2012 at 5:10 am

      Heather, you never know ;)

  • Reply Lenny Morales March 5, 2012 at 6:56 am

    Felicidades a la familia Mendoza-Donlan por el buen trabajo y sacrificio de embellecer Jupapina… estoy orgullosa de ser amiga de la familia.

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