Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Nina Wallerstein

May 11, 2020

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Nina Wallerstein

Dr. Nina Wallerstein is a Professor in the College of Population Health and Director of the Center for Participatory Research. Her research areas include: Community Based Participatory Research; Indigenous and Critical Methodologies; Empowerment-Based/Freirian Interventions; W.H.O. healthy communities in the U.S. and Latin America; as well as tribal community capacity and culturally-centered intervention development with tribes in New Mexico and United States.


What region or population of Latin America or Iberia do you study? Why?

I started working in Latin America in 1997 when the Health Promotion unit of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) invited me to serve on a committee with colleagues from Latin American countries to co-design a participatory evaluation strategy for their healthy municipality initiative. This resulted in my developing close relationships with Brazilian health promotion colleagues who invited me to teach a summer course at the University of Sao Paulo starting in 1998 on Freirian empowerment and health promotion, and subsequently to co-develop strategies for assessing health promotion effectiveness. Our collaborative research has blossomed over the years, as I have valued their deeply-embedded political-theoretical orientations, commitment to social determinants and social justice, recognition of community participation and policy change as integral to health promotion, and their multiple experiences in highly-urban through exurban, rural and indigenous contexts. Some of our collaborative research questions have been: What are the successful processes and outcomes of multi-sector collaboration? How does community participation contribute to policy change? How can health promotion best incorporate the sustainable development goals within communities and in institutions, including academic institutions? How can we contribute to each others’ learning about the practices and outcomes of community-based participatory research (CBPR) in our different U.S. and Brazilian contexts? Though focused on Brazil, I have also continued to work with colleagues from other Latin American countries, in providing CBPR and empowerment workshops and consultation, most recently in Nicaragua and Colombia, but connecting with others through the Latin American Regional association of the International Union of Health Promotion and Health Education (IUHPHE).


What has been your path to becoming a professor?

I was first hired at UNM in 1983 after finishing my Masters in Public Health to provide training in occupational health and safety to medical students. I soon became involved in a school-community participatory research project to prevent adolescent substance abuse and enhance youth empowerment with tribal, rural, and urban youth at risk. As I moved into research, I decided to go back for my doctorate at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and solidified my community based participatory research (CBPR) orientation to support community-driven priorities and power-sharing in all research stages. I joined the faculty of the UNM Department of Family and Community Medicine in 1989, and started the Masters in Public Health Program in 1994, remaining the MPH director for 13 years, moving recently to the new College of Population Health. I launched the Center for Participatory Research in 2009 to solidify a platform for CBPR for collaboration with New Mexican communities as well as extending nationally and globally. Practicing CBPR has meant developing long-term commitments to communities, especially a number of tribal communities with whom I’ve worked with for over twenty years, and in insisting that communities should co-own the data, co-author publications, and most importantly interpret and use their own data to improve strategies towards community wellness and health equity.


What motivates you in your current work/research?

I deeply believe to promote social justice and health equity that academics have to recognize that our knowledge is only part of the evidence base needed to confront inequitable conditions and growing health disparities within communities of color and other marginalized communities. I support CBPR as a social movement towards knowledge democracy, integrating decolonizing and critical methodologies, so that community knowledge and experience is honored as a driver for research. In my work with colleagues and communities throughout the Americas, I am continually reminded about the importance of listening and maintaining an attitude of ongoing learning. With the massive disruption of Covid-19 and the greater morbidity and mortality impact on people in poverty, in insecure housing or in the informal job sector, flexibility becomes even more important as I seek to support colleagues in our multiple efforts with this new immense burden.


Describe a Latin American/Iberian role model that inspires you. This can be a historical or contemporary figure or someone you know.

Since my college days, I have considered Brazilian educator Paulo Freire a distant mentor and an inspiration throughout my career, as I moved from being an adult educator and community organizer to a University educator and community based participatory researcher. The emancipatory education approach of Paulo Freire has informed my strategies of praxis in participatory evaluation and research; or, in other words, the importance of facilitating action/reflection/action cycles so that research can be truly beneficial to communities. This means working with community partners rather than on them or just in community settings, so that they can co-own the results and data from any research project and develop their own actions towards health improvement. I was lucky to have the chance to see Freire multiple times in the U.S. during his exile from Brazil, from the mid-60s to the early 90s, and learn from his work around the world when he was based at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. I was also able to work with him in the early 1980s at a workshop with practitioners, adult educators, and academics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.


Describe one piece of advice you have for young scholars in the field of Latin America and Iberia.

The most important strategy for me has been to find Latin American colleagues who are deeply embedded in issues that we mutually care about. I would recommend developing relationships with people or organizations who can share their experiences and connections to their local contexts and who have similar research areas or questions they are seeking to answer. Attending or presenting at Latin American professional association meetings is a good way to network and make these new connections. I would also recommend fostering a macro view of Latin American politics, theoretical frameworks, cultures, and cross-country issues including connections to global systems, in addition to identifying a region, country or local community for in-depth focus and commitment.