By John Showalter
Human rights is a subject that often comes up in the media. One has only to tune in to any of the major news broadcasters to hear heated debate and discussion regarding the treatment of various groups in our society, whether it be racial or religious minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, or others from all varieties of pundit and talking head.
For many these concerns are in the abstract, of intellectuals and journalists that have no bearing on their lives; or they haven’t the foggiest notion how to contribute even if they wanted to.
Sometimes, however, you have individuals like Anna Johnson, who bridges that experiential divide. An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Johnson grew up in Bismarck before moving to Fargo in 2006 to live with her wife.
After graduating with a BFA in printmaking from NDSU in 2010, Johnson worked for the VA, where she became a steward at the Fargo branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, (AFL-CIO), the largest federation of labor unions in the United States. This experience is what ignited her desire to advocate for the rights of all North Dakotans.
Her list of accomplishments would make anyone feel like an underachiever. When she is not working hard as a tandem truck driver for Aggregate Industries, she is board chair of local human rights nonprofit The Human Family, Interim Executive Director for The Indigenous Association, an artist and partner with The Arts Partnership, and formerly a member of the city of Fargo’s Native American Commission, as well as running for Fargo City Commission in 2022, where she felt everyday hard-working people were underrepresented.
On top of that she is a prolific artist whose painting and mural work you have likely seen around town. To wit: four utility box wraps downtown, a dreamcatcher by the housing authority across from Spicy Pie, two bears including one by Sidestreet, the hawk on 7th by Sanford right off Broadway, her award-winning exhibit “Walk With Two Spirits” in front of the Renaissance Hall on NP, a bench wrap with the creation story in front of Halberstadt’s, the letter A in the “Greetings from Fargo” mural, a mural on the side of Bernie’s, a large collage in West Acres Mall in Bison Court, a mural in Belcourt for the college as a partnership with the NDSU extension in downtown Belcourt, two locker banks in Minot’s Jim Hill Middle School, and a mural in Langdon Elementary.
Despite this impressive resume, Johnson maintains an air of affability and humility. That is not to say that she is not willing to “push the needle,” in her words, when the need arises. “I’m brown and a lesbian, I check a lot of boxes,” she joked, in reference to how several projects have brought her on as a “diversity hire.”
“They think they’re being slick, and I don’t know what’s going on,” she chuckled. She isn’t bitter or resentful about it, however, but sees it as an opportunity to say what needs to be said and not mince words about it.
As someone so passionate about advocating for people’s rights, it is no wonder that she gravitated toward The Human Family after meeting its founder Sean Coffman at the North Dakota Human Rights Festival. Coffman, an award-winning filmmaker, founded The Human Family in 2017.
In the words of their own site, “Our mission is to promote human rights and social justice through the voices and work of filmmakers and artists, and centering and lifting the voices who have been intentionally excluded from conversations.”
The organization is the curator of the North Dakota Human Rights Film & Arts Festivals, the North Dakota Environmental Rights Film Festival, and the Fargo-Moorhead LGBT Film Festival; and produces original content such as the documentary series “Home: The Homelessness Crisis in North Dakota”.
Their events take place around North Dakota with the goal of creating community change through perspective and empathy shifting, which occur by fostering sometimes difficult discussions in person. “We are non-partisan, and see our work as above politics. Human rights is understanding that everyone deserves ‘x’. Politics is the action of determining how best to do that. We aim to get everyone to agree that as humans, we all are entitled to those items outlined in the Declaration of Human Rights.”
This year, the Human Rights and Environmental Rights film festivals are being combined into one festival, as the two are often related. The Human Family is currently in search of as many as are willing to be jurors in that and the LGBT film festival, both of which are set to take place this autumn.
Johnson stated that this is because with 100+ films of varying length and production quality as well as the occasional content that can be very emotionally taxing to watch, burnout is a very real concern. It is easier to have jurors select a particular subset of films they would be interested in watching and judging.
As heated as the national conversation has become with regard to certain issues, such as LGBT rights, the safety of particular locales and avoiding the possibility of censorship are also concerns that are constantly being vetted before these festivals take place.
It is only through having these difficult conversations, however, that we as a society can learn and grow, and groups like The Human Family and individuals like Anna Johnson are devoted to helping that process along.
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