The power of community leadership: the story of Tania Rosario-Méndez, from Taller Salud

By Paula Gomez-Stordy

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Tania Rosario Mendez, executive director of Taller Salud, a 45-year-old feminist organization in Loiza, Puerto Rico, which has one of the largest Afro-descendant populations on the island. For almost two decades, she has been involved with Taller Salud, as a consultant, project manager, and now as the executive director.   

“Is that how you became executive director, you were an internal candidate?” I asked.   

“Do you know the organization almost closed?”  

Surprised, I said “No!” She made herself comfortable in her chair and soon, we were discussing leadership, devotion, and love.  

Taller Salud couldn’t make ends meet as they were owed $100,000 from one funder. The previous executive director was faced with the difficult decision to lay off staff.   

Tania first spoke to the staff and promised to pay them their owed wages and rehire them if possible. She held a press conference urging the public to support Taller Salud; losing the organization would mean the community losing life-saving services. She increased the board from four to nine members, engaged donors, sought discretionary funding, and negotiated payment extensions. She asked colleagues for pro-bono services until the organization’s debts were paid. 

In six months, she secured two local grants, one federal grant, and a percentage of the $100,000 owed. Six months after that, she paid and rehired all staff.   

I continued, “To what do you attribute your success?     

“I am honest. Honesty is the difference between persuasion and manipulation. And I deeply believe in Taller Salud. By helping us, we help you. We are the medicine you didn’t know you needed. What you give multiplies in impact. And you’re the lucky one who contributed to this beautiful work.”  

 “What sustained you through all of it?” I asked.  

“The first year I was hyper focused. I wanted to be accountable and pay our debts, especially to our staff. I will go throw fire for them. I want them to know that. They worked for no money, and I wanted to change the story.”  

As I rapidly typed, I heard her pause and saw her eyes water. I said, “It’s ok. Take your time.” When she was composed, I asked, “What brought up your emotions?”   

“El amor, es muy profundo.” (The love, it’s so deep.) She continued, “And then, Maria hit. We had just signed a lease and were still recovering from hurricane Irma.”  

Hurricane Irma destroyed buildings and cut two-thirds of the island’s power. Two weeks later, hurricane Maria hit, the worst hurricane since 1928 , causing floods, contaminating water ,and taking homes, power, and thousands of lives.   

“The truth is none of us had ever lived through something like Maria. We all know the shared pain and silence. Defending and advocating for our community is our duty,” said Tania.   

“Forty-eight hours after Maria hit, we were in the streets working out of our cars with our children in them. We knew people were going to die if the government didn’t intervene. I am extremely proud of what we did. Together, our leadership team responded to that emergency, and we continue together.    

“We were strategic. We lost our fear of doing work that touches the whole island. We had a vision to rebuild.”    

“We focused on the staff’s overall well-being not to lose them like so many people who left after the hurricane. We were a staff of ten and in the next year we doubled our staff.”  

“Our leadership surges in a crisis. Latinas are resourceful, creative, and strong. When there is a problem or crisis, you need a Latina to come in and make things better.”   

“I rarely have time to just reflect on this.”  

With admiration, I asked my final question, “Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself as new executive director?”   

“I would tell myself it is worse than it looks!”   

“Yes! We, sometimes, are scared to see how bad things are, so we minimize it to keep going. How can you effectively respond to a problem if you really don’t see it?”  

 “I would also say there is no room for self-doubt. It is the source that fuels oppressive systems. As a leader and natural advocate, I cannot and will not allow space for self-doubt.”  

“I’m an expert on who I am and my experiences. We’re saving people’s lives here. I tell young leaders, ‘Don’t listen or give space to self-doubt. No one knows as much as you about your reality.’”