ALUM | Ken Franks '08

Environmental Health Officer, Indian Health Services 

During his time at Red Cloud, Ken Franks ’08 took a class in chemistry and developed a fascination with science. After graduating, he went on to study at Fort Lewis College, earning a degree in Public Health. Today he serves as an Indian Health Service (IHS) Environmental Health Officer, conducting food, water, and home inspections to track public health threats and to help increase safety on the reservation. We spoke with him about his commitment to his work, his passion for personal fitness, and his plans for the future.

Q&A with Ken Franks '08

Tell us a little about your current work as an Environmental Health Officer.

The reservation isn’t a place where we have specialized public health inspectors, so as Environmental Health Officers for IHS we have to meet a range of different needs. We inspect food preparation processes for any business or organization that is licensed by the tribe to serve or sell food on the reservation. We handle wastewater system inspections, including septic tanks and lagoons. We also do home inspections, which includes checking for mold and life safety problems. When the inspection is complete we provide the documentation to the tenants, which allows them to pursue whatever avenue they want for remediation of the deficiencies.

The Office of Environmental Health (OEH) also plays an epidemiologist role in terms of injury prevention. We gather injury statistics with falls, assaults, burns, drowning and motor vehicle wrecks. When I started working with OEH there was a big push for trying to have seatbelt usage rates rise on the reservation. Seatbelts are known to reduce injury severity and because of that we focus mainly on policy and enforcement around seatbelt usage on the reservation.  We use seatbelt surveys and track usage with a University of North Carolina protocol. We park at stop signs and count the number of people driving with or without a seatbelt for a defined period of time, and then use that information to extrapolate usage rates for the reservation. On the enforcement side, we’re working closely with the Tribal Public Safety Program to enforce stricter laws and increase fines for failing to wear seatbelts and using child passenger safety seats. On the policy side of it, we work with tribal council to write and establish laws for the reservation that allow Public Safety to enforce laws more readily.

You’re doing so much to protect public health on the reservation! What’s the most rewarding part of your work for you personally?

In our injury prevention work, we graph our data and can see that seatbelt use is rising and death rates are decreasing. Those numbers and charts represents real lives on the reservation—and the fact that more people are surviving is instantly rewarding.

I’d also say the highest percentage of my time goes to food inspections. We go into businesses and schools—anywhere that serves food—and we inspect the kitchen using the USDA Food Code. We talk to the food handlers and managers regularly through the inspections and if we find any deficiency we can usually get it cleared up that day. If we find during the course of the inspection that some food handlers or managers are not certified, we are able to offer them a food handler’s course that will get their certification up to date. I like that I’m not only an inspector, but also with the deficiencies I find, I can remediate most of them on the spot. I like the idea that I can make food safety a priority for the reservation.

Talk about your path to working in public health—how did you get where you are today?

All through high school I was actually dead set on joining the Army—I have a whole family of veterans and that was my plan. But during my senior year at Red Cloud, I had a lot of talks with the counselors and also with my mom, who is an Environmental Health Officer for IHS and has been for over 15 years. She really sparked my interest in public health, water testing, and many other associated duties with environmental health. Everyone encouraged me to apply to college, and I applied to Fort Lewis at the last minute and got in.

During my time at Red Cloud, I took a chemistry class with Wendell [Gehman] and that really sparked all kinds of curiosity. I can really trace all my curiosity about science back to that chemistry class. Of all the teachers I had before college, at the three different schools I attended, he really helped me be more proactive about my education. I had always enjoyed science, statistics, and math, so when I arrived at Ft. Lewis, I started focusing on biology. But my second year, they introduced a new major in public health, and I immediately switched. 

The transition to college wasn’t easy, but Red Cloud’s educational model taught me that you have to work hard to get where you want to be. It gave me the tools and the foundation for hard work. Once I reached my junior and senior years in college and had completed a number of internships, I knew I wanted to come back to the reservation—because there’s just so much work to be done. And if I’m going to work hard, I might as well work on behalf of my people.

Your day job isn’t the only way you are contributing to your community. I hear you’re also involved in coaching and helping people increase their physical fitness. 

My passion for physical fitness started in high school. Our basketball coach Matt Rama instilled in us those same values of hard work, but particularly when it comes to your physical body. I took that with me, stayed active through college, and when I got back to the reservation, I started working with the IHS diabetes prevention program based at the hospital. We formed a partnership with Red Cloud that, at that time, allowed for community members to use the gym in the afternoon and evenings—and IHS gave Red Cloud some exercise equipment. This helped people from across the reservation stay fit and healthy. When people are exercising it helps with diabetes prevention and fall prevention. Both of these public health problems are rampant on the reservation and I’m happy that Red Cloud has given me a chance to give back to my community in more ways than one.

The program was open to everyone in the community—all adults 18 years and older—and people came from Manderson, Kyle, Oglala, Pine Ridge, all over really. And those people who started working out several years ago are now becoming leaders in the diabetes prevention program, excelling every day and getting healthier and healthier. The Wellness Center at Red Cloud is such a positive environment—it’s an inspiring place. It really caused a shift in people’s attitudes and outlook on life.

You are working on so many elements of public health. What do you think is the biggest health challenge facing the reservation today, and what are some of the solutions?

I’ve asked myself this question thousands of times, and the challenges are so multifaceted, but what I come back to is mental health. Our challenges stem from an unhealthy circle that people find themselves in. They fall into this pattern of non-growth, they aren’t thinking progressively or about their future, and they are just stagnated. Their mental health suffers and then they aren’t getting physical activity either. So when you don’t get your blood flowing and your muscles moving, it creates a negative feedback loop, which damages your mental health state even further. So by continuing in negative patterns the loop gets stronger and stronger.

I always ask myself “What can science do?” We can record the data, but what good can we do with it? I actually work right next to the social services and behavior health teams at the hospital, and they have people coming in everyday who have attempted suicide. They ask for volunteers to go sit with these kids—and there isn’t anything science can do to immediately help them. But what we can do is to break norms and actually hold each other responsible for what’s ailing our community. What it takes is education and hard work. It’s going to take all of us, but particularly younger people in the generation that’s just rising up, to come back to the reservation and take on that responsibility. As young people, we can create a healthier way of life here for our people. 


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Photo: © Red Cloud Indian School
last updated: March 29, 2016