A student of
community

A member of the Navajo Nation,
Matthew Frank's doctoral research
in social welfare will focus on
Native experiences that center
community strength.

For as long as he can remember, Matthew Frank has been a student of his community.

As a child growing up in New Mexico, his parents were likely to find him kneeling in the dirt examining plants and insects rather than playing with other kids.

When he spent summers with his grandmother, he accompanied her on trips to the doctor for her diabetes, listening to tough conversations about healthcare.

He attended community meetings with his grandparents about the two coal-powered mines that were close to their town, hearing conversations about poisoned water and corporate accountability.

All of these moments were lessons in advocacy, sovereignty, and relationships with community. They were also the start of his passion for education across disciplines, as he would eventually earn two bachelor’s degrees and two master’s degrees spanning biochemistry, sociology and anthropology, public health, and social work.

As a queer, Native man, as a person who identifies with many communities, I can’t be a good researcher and mentor and teacher without being a good relative.
Matthew FrankDoctoral student

A member of the Navajo Nation, Frank has also spent years working with tribal communities on topics like data sovereignty, health care, and research. Now, as a doctoral student studying social welfare at UW, Frank will be working with Professor Roberto Orellana on issues related to health disparities.

“The doctorate provides the privilege and power to be able to sit at the tables at NIH or SAMHSA and leverage those opportunities for tribal communities,” Frank said. “After I finish my training, the goal is to start a journey of working with communities and seeing how we can address problems and center resiliency to not only continue programs but to improve individual and community outcomes.”

Frank’s research will have two focuses. The first will ask how socioeconomic position, social mobility, and social context affect health and healthcare inequities among Native Americans. This is important because there isn’t much research on the social mobility of people who are Native American and have also obtained higher degrees of education.

Frank with his family (top row, from left: sister Winona, Frank, brother DJ. Bottom row: brother Davien, brother Skyer, and mom Michelle) in New Mexico at a high school graduation celebration in May 2021.

Frank, his partner, Nick, and best friend, Danny, hike the Hoh River Trail in Olympic National Park, September 2020.

The second focus of his research will be on HIV prevention and treatment, by looking at sexual and gender minorities, particularly Native American men who have sex with men, and the intersection between HIV, social support, stigma and discrimination.

“With these focuses in mind, and based on my previous work and lived experience, my research agenda asks: What do Native experiences that center community strengths, survival, and thriving contribute to social welfare scholarship and culturally centered solutions?” Frank said.

After earning his first bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, Frank pondered a career in science. But around the same time, President Barack Obama was beginning his first campaign for president, and there was a sense of change and renewed importance around community organizing that inspired Frank to pursue community-based work rather than labwork.

This goal took him across the midwest, from community health care in Chicago on HIV prevention with the LGBTQ community and people of color, to reproductive and sexual health education in Kansas City. He worked as an AmeriCorps member, worked in a homeless shelter, and facilitated volunteer opportunities for young students.

While he always knew he wanted to get a doctorate, mentors advised him on the importance of having field experience first. So he spent four years at a tribal epidemiology center that served tribal communities in southern Colorado, west Texas, and New Mexico, as well as an additional year in Portland at an urban Indian health clinic.

Frank and his grandma driving through Montana with Frank's dog Macey, in September 2021.

Two people take selfie in front of brick bridge archways

Frank and his partner, Nick, at the Brooklyn Bridge in January 2020.

For Frank, this work emphasized the importance of data sovereignty, by giving tribal communities the tools to collect data and evaluate their own programs and policies to measure effectiveness. This is important because tribes recognized by the federal government are sovereign, and can make their own laws and policies. Data can help inform how those policies are working.

Developing research questions and data collection tools that come from the community rather than the federal government can avoid stereotyping or data that doesn’t reflect the community.

For example, a behavioral survey question may ask, “Who do you look to as a role model?” but a question that centers the community would ask, “Who in the community do you look up to?” This slight change gets the same outcome but provides a more thoughtful and thorough answer, Frank said.

GSEE Fellow

Frank is a GSEE Graduate Excellence Award fellow, which provides funding for graduate school. GSEE — an office in the Graduate School — also provides a network of support amongst fellow BIPOC graduate students. Frank said the fellowship can help students who may not have envisioned earning a degree beyond their bachelor’s degree.

“I think GSEE is very important because it allows folks like me to be critical thinkers who may not have been given opportunities due to structural and systemic barriers,” Frank said. “We get to think about the world in a sophisticated way that intersects with our lived experiences and make a contribution to the many perspectives that are very much needed today.”

“Hopefully by helping tribes to collect data, it can make a positive contribution to governing their own people’s lands and resources,” Frank said.

While one of Frank’s goals after graduate school is to be a tenure-track professor, he also wants to be a good mentor to younger students. Frank, who is a first-generation graduate student, said he wouldn’t be where he is today without his mentors, who helped give him guidance in navigating higher education.

Just as important to him is being a good relative and good ancestor of Indigeous communities, whether that’s contributing to tribal community research, mentoring young students, or creating opportunities for partnerships.

“As a queer, Native man, as a person who identifies with many communities, I can’t be a good researcher and mentor and teacher without being a good relative,” Frank said.

Pursuing his doctorate at the UW allows him to work in partnership with Indigenous scholars and communities, Frank said.

“The University is centering Native knowledge and centering Native scholars and making an active effort to bring talented and diverse scholars to the university including Indigenous, Native faculty,” Frank said. “Not only does that provide me an opportunity to study with and for them, but I get to study with the best.”

 

By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School

Published December 8, 2021