Friday, October 6, 2023
Season 2, Episode 20:
The Impact of Unlearning in Community Engaged Research
In this episode we are talking with community psychologist Dr. Tatiana Bustos about the impact of unlearning in community engaged research.
Season 2, Episode 20: The Impact of Unlearning in Community Engaged Research
Welcome to the Public Health Joy podcast, the safe space for real and honest conversation about what building a public health research career is really like: the challenges, the triumphs, and all the lessons we learn along the way.
I’m your host, Dr. Joyee, a Public health researcher, PhD survivor, and entrepreneur. In today’s episode we are talking with community psychologist Dr. Tatiana Bustos about the impact of unlearning in community engaged research.
This is where research meets relationship and together, we will find our Public Health Joy!
Community-engaged research is a collaborative and participatory approach to public health research and evaluation that includes those affected by the issue at hand. Ultimately, this means going beyond the textbook to understand these issues from a different (and sometimes uncomfortable) perspective. Today, we talk to community psychologist and committed equity and social justice advocate, Dr. Tatiana Bustos, about the impact of “unlearning” in community-engaged research and the importance of out-of-the-box thinking that invites communities into the process.
In this episode, we gain some insight into how she has helped public health practitioners build capacity with more equity-centered approaches that can strengthen communities and create social change to transform lives. Join us as we discuss how to start shifting our thinking around what impact, success, and outcomes look like, what brings Dr. Bustos joy in her work, and so much more!
Links mentioned in this episode:
For more information on transforming public health research into positive community impact, visit https://joyeewashington.com
- An introduction to Dr. Bustos and the work she does as a community psychologist. [2:10]
- The different mindset and “unlearning” that community-engaged research requires. [3:44]
- Why leaning into discomfort is important in order to work with your community. [14:06]
- How Dr. Bustos thinks about promoting equity and accessibility in her research. [17:52]
- Benefits of bringing your identity into your work as a public health professional. [20:56]
- Redefining success based on the community you’re working with. [23:23]
- Dr. Bustos highlights the significance of different types of impact. [26:04]
- What brings Dr. Bustos joy in her work, namely the people she serves. [33:11]
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[0:00:52.4] JW: Welcome to another great episode of The Public Health Joy Podcast. Today, we have Dr. Tatiana Bustos, who is a community psychologist and community equity and social justice advocate, who is representing herself today, not representing any specific organizations, anything like that, so anything that’s said during this episode is her views and her views alone.
So, we are going to jump right into it. Dr. Bustos and I know each other from LinkedIn and I will say, I have become a lover of LinkedIn and now, when I see people’s requests – and I think you sent me a request and I immediately look at the headline, right? And so I’m like, participatory research? You immediately captured my attention.
And seeing all the work on LinkedIn that you do with communities and lifting voices and all of that, it’s always so good to connect with someone who has such a similar background and similar passion and you are actually the second community psychologist that we had had on the podcast. So, community psychology is definitely getting some shine on the podcast for sure but I am going to turn it over to you, Dr. Bustos, to tell us a little bit about you and what you do and your work.
[0:02:19.9] TB: Thank you and thank you so much for having me. I did hear that podcast episode on the community psychology journey and that was – I very much resonated with my life and loved that it was in that discussion with public health. So, my name is Dr. Tatiana Bustos. I identify as a Latina, a woman of color. I’m situated in Puyallup, Washington. I use she/her pronouns and my background has been in community-based participatory work, being in different types of spaces for a start in education.
I did some work in environmental justice and then health services but then ultimately, got into this public health space and that’s really where some of my deepest passions started to grow and yeah, as you mentioned, you know, I try to build out equity in research and evaluation projects, always thinking about different ways that we can center community into either the intervention designs or the materials that were developed being that are products of those projects and things like that.
So that’s been my – that’s my overall summary of where my work stands and who I identify as.
[0:03:33.0] JW: Yeah, and it’s kind of a big community-based participatory research. It’s a big thing but it’s also such a small subset of public health research and I think that when it comes to community-based participatory research, we have to start thinking about, how does this translate to other areas of research, other forms of research? Because our communities are so important and it takes a different level of thinking.
It takes a different path to try to do community-based participatory research or community-engaged research and it’s funny because I was actually working with someone who is more so in academia and they are getting exposed to this type of research and they’re like, “This is crazy, like, how do I do all of this?” I’m like, “Hey, this is the world of it. Like, this is what it looks like, and it does not look like what you have traditionally been brought up or trained in as far as research is concerned.”
[0:04:40.0] TB: I totally agree. Yes, and it takes a special mindset, you know, or it takes undoing many of the ways that we know how to do things. So unlearning that process and really inviting new ways of knowledge and community expertise. I remember when I was first introduced to it in my training when I was completing my doc program and I thought because I didn’t know research in any other way, I thought this is how it needs to be.
Like, it’s hard and it’s challenging but we need to be talking to communities. We need to be you know, just totally starting over, changing the idea completely, and starting from the very beginning with engaging them for their ideas. Yeah, I resonate with that idea that it’s hard, it’s crazy, how do you do this? And I think I still say that all the time because sometimes you’re in a – you’re working in an organization or with a structure and they want to do CBPR work,
But how can you when there are policies in place that restrict that, doing it fully or in the best way that you can as a community psychologist? So yeah, definitely, definitely resonate with that.
[0:05:53.5] JW: And it’s exactly what you said that unlearning. Like, we spend so much, especially as public health researchers and professionals, we spend so much time in school, right? Getting the degrees, getting the training, learning how to do the research, learning how to get into SPSs and all the statistical stuff, or if you’re doing qualitative research, how to do your coding, how to get your things.
But then, you get out of school, you get in the field, you start working with communities, and then you’ve got to unlearn. You’ve got to spend all the time unlearning what you just spent so many years learning in school because the textbooks do not cover how to engage with communities because you almost can’t have a textbook. You don’t know until you start working with them and every community is different.
[0:06:43.6] TB: Yes.
[0:06:45.0] JW: And you have to work on learning how to build trust and how to engage those communities in a way that works for them and there’s no textbook that’s going to tell you that.
[0:06:57.2] TB: Right.
[0:06:57.3] JW: So, in thinking about that, what was the unlearning process like? And I’ll share what it’s like for me but I want you to go first but what was that unlearning process like for you?
[0:07:09.2] TB: Yeah, I think – so, I started doing research in the traditional way but I was, you know, I was much younger. It was like 10 years ago, field of work, going out to a school, working with kids, having them complete the assessment, and then going home. You know, or like, going to their project team and then talking about what we found and moving on to the next thing, into the next thing and I just always felt unsettled by that, you know?
So it’s like, I’m a very relationship-oriented person as you know. You know, I tried to reach out to you and connect with you. I love connecting with people on LinkedIn but – where was I going with that? I was trying to say that when I was working in the field and doing a lot of the outreach, you know, I grew to not love people but really connect with them in a different way that wasn’t just research-focused. I wasn’t just thinking about the research project and getting that done.
I started to see people for who they were, the people that they are, you know, the issues that they are experiencing in schools, and I just remember feeling so unsettled by that and wanted to find other ways of doing this type of work that was really more meaningful, sustainable, you know, continue those relationships in the longer term and that’s how I came across community psychology.
So, that’s what brought me to that field but once I started doing community psychology-based type training, like CBPR, they threw us out into the community. They were like, “I’m going to throw my training there, like go engage a community and tell us what you learned.” That was basically the class and it was so hard. All the challenges that you would have never thought like, they don’t necessarily see the need for a needs assessment.
Like, “Why would you even propose that?” So, you have to go back and have a conversation about what it is that they need before, you know, trying to propose a project and so that’s one example of unlearning. You know, the idea that a research type of data collection or approach needs to start with what it is that they actually need, not the thing that you think they need based on what you’re seeing, you know?
So, that flips around, and then just the fact that when we were doing that training, I was going on those communities and trying to find a project and all of that. I remember that there was a lot of like, hesitation and mistrust, you know? Because of course, I was new to the area and I had thought, “Okay, if I just propose that I can help with something, people will be open to it.”
You know, that was my thinking and the fact of the matter is that you actually have to show up in different ways that extend beyond the research, you know? You have to you know, have a reputation where you are aligned with the values and you know, I started going at farmers markets in the communities and starting to connect with people in different ways so that the trust can be built and so that we can have a foundation of something before just coming in and doing some type of work for them.
Those are just two examples that I had to unlearn as a researcher and I continue to unlearn to this day, you know? Just as – I don’t know if you’re like this but when I come into a project, I already have all these ideas but I need to remember that I need to understand what the issue is from the perspective of the community first before I throw in all these wonderful ideas that are textbook great but don’t necessarily fit right in the real world.
[0:10:39.0] JW: Absolutely, and you said a whole bunch of stuff. Number one, I want to go back to that unsettling feeling and I think a lot of us as researchers, we need to stop right there. Stop right there and lean into that unsettling feeling and why does it feel that way? I think if a lot of – more of us took the time to start leaning into this unsettling feeling because it is a feeling that will never leave you and once you recognize it and once you are aware of it, it’s almost like you can’t go back.
Like, you can’t go back, you can’t unsee it, right? Once you have seen the light and you start to explore that feeling and begin to understand that the way we have been traditionally trained in research might not be the right way and I think that we have to start normalizing that it’s okay to feel that way and it’s also okay to start trying to figure out what is going to be the best course of action in moving forward once we identify that unsettling feeling because that unsettling feeling means that we as researchers need to do something differently.
And, for me, it has meant that I have come to the understanding that I may not have been in the position to best serve my community and I have to start looking for ways to best serve my community and that goes – that means that I have to start going into the unlearning process and I know for me, just like you were saying, building those relationships, that’s what it takes in order to do more effective research that is going to lift community voices and prioritize community wants and needs over the researcher’s wants and needs.
And from our training, especially traditionally in academia, you’re like, “Oh, go review the literature,” right? Develop your conceptual framework and your theoretical framework and you develop your – you find the gap, right? And you figure out what you need to do. There’s nothing wrong with that now. That is definitely valid but if you don’t address what the community wants or needs and compare it to what you’re seeing in the literature and prioritize the community’s needs and wants over maybe what you are seeing in the literature or figure out a way to understand how they are complimentary to each other or how they differ, you got to do some critical thinking.
You got to do some critical thinking and some problem-solving. You can’t just focus on the literature alone. You have to figure out how the two work together, and to me, that’s part of the unlearning process as well because the community’s viewpoints are more important because they are on the frontlines, every single – they don’t care about no literature. They don’t care about your framework; they don’t care about your gap.
They’re like, whatever they are facing right then and there is what’s important to them. We have to start thinking about that unlearning process and that unsettling feeling as not a bad thing. It might be an uncomfortable thing but it’s not a bad thing but it’s not a bad thing. Leaning into that uncomfortability, that unsettling feeling can often lead us right down the path where we need to go because we’re going to start maturing and we’re going to start growing as researchers and professionals and growing with our communities.
[0:14:36.0] TB: I feel like you’re reading my spirit. So, some of that unsettled feeling, I started you know, exploring but at that age, that meant like trying to find books or you know, explore other fields because I didn’t want to just do the broad research approach and I actually found a book at a thrift store on community psychology because when I had that openness to want to learn something else and find myself in something else because I knew that this was not the right fit for me and so, I just really speaks to me in so many different ways and yeah, so I just – I love that.
[0:15:13.7] JW: Yeah, and I think that building relationships can mean so many different things when you’re engaging with the community. Like, it’s so diverse, and every community is different and so the way you engage and build relationships with one community may not work in a different community. That’s another part of that unlearning process and I tell people all the time, there was no textbook that told me that I needed to go to the kid’s soccer games or track meets or you know, whatever events are happening in the community.
There was no textbook that told me that. I had to learn that on my own by talking with the community members, engaging with them, learning about the things that are important to them. When they’re like, “Hey, I can’t come to your focus group or community conversation or whatever, because I have this other thing going on.” That is fine. I understand that that is more important to you right now than this research we’ve got going on.
[0:16:21.3] TB: Yeah.
[0:16:21.9] JW: And as researchers, we have to respect and understand that our research, goals, objectives, whatever it is, may not be important to the community, they probably do not care and that is okay because if you are doing it, I don’t want to say, “the right way” but it is. If you’re doing it the right way, and you’ve leaned into that unsettling feeling, doing it the right way means that you are working with the community and figuring out what is important to them.
Because if you are focusing on an issue that’s not important to them, you’re already off on the wrong foot but if you have talked to the community and they have identified what the problem is or what the issue is and you are working with them to figure out what that solution is, they are going to be much more invested.
[0:17:14.6] TB: Yeah.
[0:17:15.0] JW: In what’s happening, you know? They are going to show up and they are going to show out. It just depends on how you build that relationship process with them as you are doing the research and making sure that the research is a cohesive effort. It’s not you, coming in, leading the research project, and just doing what you want to do and just saying, “Oh, you can have some input, you can say a little bit of something here and there.”
Like, you really have to make sure that it’s a cohesive and collaborative effort and understand what is your position with the community as well.
[0:17:52.5] TB: I think the other piece you made me think about is like, the source. So like you know, asking community what it is they need is important and then I also find myself thinking about my family. Like, my family is not from this country and, you know, they are very unique in their own ways, their own beautiful ways and I think about, you know, when I’m working on some projects I think about, “Will my mom ever be able to read this?”
Is it in a language that is accessible to different people or are we just promoting English materials even though it is trying to promote diversity and equity across different groups? You know, is this something that could catch the attention of my father? You know, who has – or be able to invite him into a setting even though he has no time because of his work and types of work hours that are different from nine to five?
You know, it is just – those are the types of things that I think about and so many other different things about cultural beliefs and how that can be different across different communities and so I also think about you know, serving where I come from and whether – even just starting there and most of the time some of these projects won’t even be effective for reaching my family as an example, you know?
So I feel driven by those types of sources where that alignment with community matters but then having a concrete example with you know, “Well, can I envision my family using this intervention or, you know, being able to access these resources?” That’s my deciding factor for lots of these things.
[0:19:25.2] JW: Yeah, and as you’re talking about that, it’s kind of like thinking about family, thinking about the people that you know and traditionally, we are trained to disconnect ourselves, right?
[0:19:34.2] TB: Yes.
[0:19:34.8] JW: To disconnect ourselves from that type of thinking. You know, you’re supposed to be objective, you’re supposed to be able to look at the research and look at the data and look at everything from a position without any type of bias, you know, without any type of influence and that’s like, “No, that’s not going to happen” because it’s just no way. I can’t and I think that’s another part of that unsettling feeling, right?
Is that we’ve been trained to think about research in a particular way and I can’t look at something objectively and not think about my family, not think about being a Black woman from Mississippi, not thinking about all of the racial injustices that surround me. I can’t look at research from just this black-and-white kind of picture. It just doesn’t work for me and so – but when we would traditionally think about this disadvantage, it actually works as an advantage, particularly in community-engaged research because it helps you build relationships more.
[0:20:40.7] TB: Right.
[0:20:41.1] JW: So it’s like how do we translate that to those who may not understand? Maybe they haven’t been exposed to this particular type of research or they’re just getting started with this type of research and that’s like, it’s okay. It’s okay to actually connect yourself with the people in your life, the people who you love, the experiences that you’ve had, to connect that with you or research. That makes the research stronger. What we’ve been taught traditionally that it does not.
[0:21:15.0] TB: Yes, yes. You know, it was like something – I am so glad you brought that out because that’s something I’m continuously trying to strengthen in my walk and the way that I do my work because you know, it’s a predominantly white field, you know? As much as it is in other spaces, and oftentimes, I was trying to put that away or, you know, just try to do it like everyone else because that’s what was successful in that space.
Now, I’m trying to be better, in the past five years, I’ve been trying to be better about bringing my identities everywhere that I go because those are my strengths, those are my diamonds. I heard that on another episode of some – I can’t remember what the title was but talking about bringing your diamonds in all the work that you do because then, the diamonds are a part of who you are like it’s the values that you bring as yourself.
I’ve been trying to do that more and more as I am continuing this work and advancing in my career because I just think it’s what makes us stand out as people who identify from certain social groups, certain communities they don’t have – like many communities don’t have advocates for them. You know, I’ve been in rooms where there is not one mention of, “Hey, we don’t have data on race and ethnicity, maybe we should try to measure that.”
You know, and these are really high-level stakes for policies or something like that and it’s important to have a community representative in those spaces, in those meetings to be able to speak up because otherwise there won’t be anyone who will speak up. I think that in it of itself, like the fact that the community representative is part of that identity and/or it’s just trying to support communities of color more generally is important and it’s needed, much, much needed. So yeah, yeah, I love that. I love that.
[0:23:13.5] JW: And you said something that I thought was important, you said that’s what success looks like in those spaces.
[0:23:20.9] TB: Right, yes.
[0:23:22.5] JW: And so we have to start thinking about, what does success looks like in our spaces? What does success look like in our communities? We can’t be afraid to go against the grain.
[0:23:37.0] TB: Right.
[0:23:37.7] JW: We can’t be afraid to go against what we have traditionally been taught because the white male-dominated spaces don’t look like this, don’t feel like this, don’t work like this, and so what they have deemed as successful research is not what works for our communities and so we have to start thinking about, what does success look like for us? How do we define success? What do impactful outcomes look like for our communities? And to be strengthened by the idea that our version of success looks different.
[0:24:20.1] TB: Yes.
[0:24:21.2] JW: And that is going to resonate with our communities and also thinking about the sustainability piece of it. What does success look like in terms of sustainability? Because for a lot of researchers, especially in academia, success looks like getting a journal article published.
[0:24:39.4] TB: Right.
[0:24:40.2] JW: Success looks like securing the next grant or securing the next set of funding. Success looks like moving up to that tenure track position or whatever, whereas success in our communities could look like getting the street lights on.
[0:25:00.3] TB: Yes.
[0:25:01.4] JW: Or putting street lights in the neighborhood. It could look like community members coming together and creating their own coalition, you know? It could look like setting up a community-based food pantry and it might never see a journal article. It might not ever see a conference presentation, but when we are able to see the impact in our communities and we’re able to change the narrative and actually see the difference, that’s what matters to me.
That’s what part of success looks like in our communities versus somebody else may never see that, may never understand it because they have not gone through the unlearning, they don’t want to go through the unlearning, and that’s them, but I have to be okay with going against the grain and going against what I’ve been taught and what I know and that can be hard but it’s the best choice for me personally.
[0:26:01.2] TB: You are making me think of the word impact. So I was working with a student I think last year and that’s what keeps me connected to academia. So it is like an external STEM mentoring program and I was just meeting with her and she has this mindset that about how research needs to lead to this huge impact. You know, it has to be either at a policy level or, you know, something similar and I was trying to reframe it in a way where we also are there.
We have a social responsibility to bring about small impact or you know, incremental – like there are different types of impact that we can make for communities like you’re pointing out with even just the resources, the community capacity building, you know, things like that that are even more important depending on where you sit as a community member or like as politician or as a government staff, you know, whatever the case.
So it was just – and that for her, I remember her thinking that was really different because they were training her to think otherwise about impacting this broader big-level change and I think it’s important for all of us in our trainings to not let that be the end goal, the end all be all, and really think about incremental changes that can be made possible by just building those relationships or just asking communities about what it is that you may –
I remember a story about, in Washington, about how COVID tests, they had it in a certain neighborhood and they found, the data that they found was that people were not going to this clinic. They had a COVID vaccination clinic, they had all these resources, but people were not going there. They couldn’t figure out why. A wonderful person came in and went to the community and asked them why and it turns out, there’s no bus from the neighborhood to go directly to that clinic because you have to take like three different buses or something like that.
There’s a very simple solution that we could have resolved from the very beginning had we just started with the community first. So it’s just one example of you know, how the issue may be a resource and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a focus on changing policies, and that can change lives. You know, you can say be saving lives if you just change the bus system or add transportation to the program.
[0:28:34.4] JW: Right and you were talking about that word impact, right? I know when I talk about my business and the consulting work that I do in working with community-based organizations and nonprofits and public health organizations and I specifically say in how to transform public health research, it’s a positive community impact, whatever that looks like.
[0:28:57.4] TB: Right.
[0:28:57.8] JW: As long as it is a positive impact. It could be policy change, it could be something, you know, on a bigger scale like that but it could also be, “Hey, I want to teach moms, teach the moms in my mom’s group about a specific type of sickness or illness that’s maybe affecting our neighborhood or our children’s group right now.” “I want to focus on educating parents on what’s happening on this data that we have that we’ve collected and I don’t know how to educate them on it.”
You know, it could be anything because anything can be a positive impact but we have to make – the key is, for me personally, instead of just saying, “I want to make an impact,” “I want to make a positive impact.” That’s the important key for me because in research, we made plenty of impact. All of it has not been positive. So that to me is the key and it could be big or small and I think about it as kind of like a – we tend to think of like and just go with me here, my brain works in different ways, so I am thinking like imagery and illustrations.
We tend to think of impact as like a wave. Like a wave, if you think about the ocean, like a huge wave, like that’s got to be the impact but if you think about how people skip stones in a creek or in a river or something, you get those ripples.
[0:30:21.6] TB: Right.
[0:30:22.8] JW: And how those ripple effects can go on forever, you know, what do those smaller impacts – how does that lead to bigger impacts down the road? So, the ripples are just as important as those big waves. They all lead somewhere, so I think we have to start shifting our thinking around what impact, success, and outcomes look like in terms of research and how we work with the communities.
[0:30:55.4] TB: Yes, I love that imagery and that makes me think of one of our projects. It was called The Flint Women’s Study, it’s still ongoing but one of the projects that we were examining was just exploring women’s experiences in Flint. What were their strengths, what were they doing to support one another? And we came to find in that project that they were teaching each other different types of skillsets.
They were helping each other with job applications, they were connecting each other to job opportunities, you know, teaching how to knit, you know different types of things embedded within their own community, their own group in Flint, and part of that process is what led to this sense of resilience like that’s what we were seeing as their strengths, you know? They were saying their source of strength is through others supporting them.
I thought that – I always think about that project because it’s so powerful to think about that ripple effect, you know, how small steps linked to impact in different ways could ultimately lead to changing a whole community’s narrative, you know? We were trying to change what people typically think about when they see Flint and instead, really think about how women contributed their own time and resources to help to support one another and grow with one another.
That is a powerful – I don’t know, I think it’s just, yeah. So it just resonates with what you’re saying with the ripple effects and how those smaller changes can lead to a completely different, I don’t know, I don’t even know how to describe it but a completely different picture of what a community may be more typically, but yeah.
[0:32:46.6] JW: Yeah, you see this, and that resilience is so powerful when you are able to see it happen and being able to see those ripples and see change, even if it’s small, to be able to see that change and to see where it goes and so in thinking about that, I want to ask you this one last question as we get ready to wrap up and that is, what brings you joy in your work?
[0:33:14.6] TB: Oh jeez, so I think, in the work that I do, what brings me joy is definitely the people that I get to impact. No matter how small or big that impact may be, I am there to serve those communities, and having those opportunities to bring different types of impact are really what drives me to this work and this is what I love. So, I had a partner, we were doing a community bias report meeting and I had a couple of survey items.
They did not like the survey items and wanted me to start from the very beginning. You know, they were telling me how it was and how I needed to hear it and said, “We need to start from the beginning,” and I said, “Okay.” I remember one of them saying like, “I can’t believe you listened.” I think that is what I live for. I live for changing what someone may expect research to be or the interaction between researchers and community members to be and instead, empowering them to continue telling me how it should be and just making that the norm.
They were surprised that I was willing to change everything because I knew I needed to start with them first and I think that’s what brings me joy. I think about that all the time because I was like, “Yes, my job is done.” That’s exactly what I want to do and how I want to surprise people.
[0:34:44.9] JW: Thank you so much for sharing that because that resonates with me as well, being able to put those communities first and knowing that they are being heard.
[0:34:55.5] TB: Yes.
[0:34:56.2] JW: And that we are making changes based on their voice and what they want is so important. So in thinking about that, if people want to reach out, want to connect with you, what’s the best way that they can do that?
[0:35:09.5] TB: Yeah, I’m definitely on LinkedIn, I am very active there. You can just look me up, Tatiana Elisa Bustos, I have my middle name there and then I’m also on Twitter @telisa72, so you can feel free to reach out to me there.
[0:35:24.1] JW: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being a guest with us today. We are so grateful for your story and for just sharing with us so many good jams about the unlearning process. So we are going to conclude this episode and that wraps up The Public Health Joy Podcast.
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