On Wednesday, August 2, Executive Producer Sean Coffman was invited to Prairie Public Radio’s Main Street to talk with host Doug Hamilton about “Those Among Us”. Main Street is an award-winning radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.

The conversation aired twice on August 2, and was archived on the Main Street website. The full episode can be found here.

An excerpt of the show that includes only the interview with Sean Coffman is provide below, with a written transcript of the interview.

Doug Hamilton
This Main Street on Prairie Public. I’m Doug Hamilton, and we call the show Main Street because these microphones are our virtual Main Street all across North Dakota this time of day. The real ones out there that we cross and greet our friends and neighbors and talk about what’s on our minds, well, that may also be where we talk about somebody who’s special in our community, who thinks about others in a way maybe we all should think about them. We’re going to talk about a project that celebrates that. Ashley Thornberg is with me here in the studio with Sean Coffman. He is one of the creative forces behind a special project called “Those Among Us: The Human Rights Champions of North Dakota, Volume One.” Thanks for being with us, Sean.
Sean Coffman
Thank you for having me.
Ashley T.
What is “Those Among Us”?
Sean Coffman
“Those Among Us” is a multidisciplinary project that is capturing the profiles of 20 individuals in North Dakota who are working to promote or protect human rights in North Dakota. It’s a multicollaborative process and project, so the first part of the project is a photo book and essay and photo exhibition that includes the incredible wet plate photography of Shane Balkowitsch of Bismarck, North Dakota.
Doug Hamilton
How did you pick your human rights subjects?
Sean Coffman
We are using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as our foundation for the project. So if you aren’t familiar with the declaration, there are 30 articles in the declaration that outline what every human in the world should expect as a human right. It sounds pretty daunting, but it’s pretty universal in terms of what we’re talking about. It’s the right to housing, the right to food, the right to health care, the right to live, the right to marry whom you want. It’s these kind of foundational things that we’re using as our starting point for the documentary. What we’re doing is we’re looking both for people we know in the communities around North Dakota who are providing these kind of protections and pushing the efforts to protect these rights throughout the state. We’ve also, on our website, we have a nomination form, where if there’s somebody that you know who’s doing something pretty substantial in the community, you can nominate them to be a part of this first book.
Doug Hamilton
So you’re still looking for subjects.
Sean Coffman
Absolutely. Of the 20 candidates that we have in this first volume, we’ve only selected six so far. So it’s very much an ongoing project.
Ashley T.
Give us some examples. Who is included in the book so far, in the project?
Sean Coffman
Absolutely. So far, our very first wet plate photo was with Sue Koesterman, who currently is the executive director with Churches United. If you aren’t familiar with Sue, not only is she an amazing woman, but she’s been very engaged and a true advocate with the homeless in here in Fargo-Moorhead area for as long as I’ve lived here. We also have Joshua Boschee, who is the first openly gay representative to be elected to the state legislature, and he’s been doing phenomenal work with promoting and protecting the rights of the LGBT communities. We have Stacy Schaffer, who is out of Bismarck, North Dakota. She is the founder of the 31:8 project. If you aren’t familiar with that, they really advocate and work to promote an end to human trafficking in North Dakota and around the world. Ruth Buffalo is a public health activist who just was recently appointed to the city of Fargo’s Native American Commission and also works with the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition.
We just announced this and we actually took her photograph last Friday, but Deb Dawson, who is a very strong humanitarian philanthropist in the area working African Soul, American Heart, has been recently selected to the project. Barry Nelson as well, if you’re familiar with Barry. He’s one of the founders of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition and has also been working very diligently with the folks at the Fargo Human Relations Commission. I always get tongue-tied on that. The Fargo Human Relations Commission has been a part of the project as well. We’ve got two more that we’re going to announce here in the near future. Both are local Fargo candidates, but beyond those individuals, I think with the two that we’re yet to announce, I think we’re actually at eight, but if you know of anybody who has been doing substantial work in the state, we welcome you to nominate them to be a part of our project.
Doug Hamilton
And you can do that by going to thoseamongusnd.com.
Sean Coffman
That’s correct.
Doug Hamilton
Thoseamongusnd.com, are there other states doing this?
Sean Coffman
Not that I’m aware of. The inspiration for this project came from a book that came out probably about 15, 20 years ago called “Speak Truth to Power.” “Speak Truth to Power” actually focused on human rights workers and activists around the world, so they did interviews with people like Nelson Mandela. What we decided to do was to really home in on the state of North Dakota and really talk about the incredible work that people inside the state here are doing.
Ashley T.
Do you have any kind of preference at all? Does it matter if someone is working internationally or working locally or as long as they’re trying to solve human rights violations?
Sean Coffman
The only criteria that we have, and it’s turned out to be a pretty interesting criteria, especially living on the border of Minnesota, is that they physically live in North Dakota. Most of our candidates, actually all of our candidates except for Deb so far are actually doing work physically in North Dakota. They’re either working with nonprofits, or they’re working with communities here in North Dakota. I think Deb is really interesting example because of just the quality and the impact she’s had on a different part of the world from North Dakota, specifically from Fargo. I think that that is … It’s exciting to talk about the influence we can have in the rest of the world from where we live here in the far North, as people have been calling it.
Doug Hamilton
Let’s talk about this photographic process that’s part of this, wet plate photography. Why that particular choice?
Sean Coffman
Wow, you know I learned about Shane. It’s interesting how the world works today where you usually meet people online before you meet them in person, and that was my experience. I met Shane through mutual friends on Facebook, and I saw his body of work. As we were developing this project, we were really looking for a style of photography that would be unique and would tell a story by itself. As we were looking at different photographers in the state to use, I came across Shane’s work, and there’s just such a depth to his images in terms of the stories that the images themselves say or tell. Shane’s got an amazing process. He’s a true artist in every sense of the word. He’s one of the most humble and honest and incredible individuals that I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. As Shane talks about the wet plate process, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, basically he has a piece of glass that he’ll put photographic chemicals on. If you could imagine the pictures from the 1800s of a photographer with a big bellow camera, he puts that glass in the back of the camera in his studio in Bismarck. He takes off the lens and for nine seconds under bright lights, the candidates have to sit and hold their pose.
For us, it’s … and when you hear Shane talk about the process, it really is capturing a moment in time with these individuals. We joke I take pictures behind the scenes as we’re doing this, and I take maybe 300 photographs of the process of him taking one. It’s a fraction of a second every time I click the shutter. This is actually capturing a slice of these individuals’ lives. To that end, Shane really believes that these are, and I believe, that these are actually capturing a part of the individual. We’ve worked to actually do two things. One, each individual has the opportunity to be photographed with something that motivated them or is a part of their history to become a human rights activist. So Barry Nelson has his grandfather’s stopwatch. Deb Dawson has the hat that she’s worn every trip to Africa that she’s worked with these young ladies there. Stacy is motivated by her religion, so she’s got her cross highlighted in the photograph. These images will be paired with personal essays written by each of these individuals to talk about who they are and why they decided to do the type of work that they’re doing and why they feel that it’s important not only to the state but to the world to do this work. All of that combined creates a very personal photograph and a personal story about the work that’s being done here in North Dakota.
Ashley T.
We’re visiting with Sean Coffman, one of the creators of “Those Among Us: The Human Rights Champions of North Dakota.” This is a multimedia project documenting people working in social justice and human rights issues. Sean, where can people see these photos and the other aspects of the project that are involved?
Sean Coffman
Our website is a great first step. It’s www.thoseamongusnd.com. From there, you can link to our Instagram and Twitter and Facebook pages. We’ve got pieces of the images or different variations of the images up there. You can follow our story as we go through the process of announcing who’s going to be in it, and we’re selecting … I think our last post was actually about the paper stock that we’re looking at to print the images on. You can also join us at the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition’s evening of possibilities, which is going to be at the HoDo, here in downtown Fargo. We’re going to have a couple of the images actually printed and on display as we give an update to the story.
Doug Hamilton
This is going to be an exhibit eventually.
Sean Coffman
It will be, yeah. There are four parts of the project. We talked about the book. The second is once we have all the wet plate photographs taken, we’re going to create a traveling exhibit to actually promote, again, these individuals and the work they’re doing in North Dakota. You’ll be able to reserve the exhibit online at the website, and we’ll take it out to you. The third part is a video documentary series. So we’re putting together, as we take these photographs, we’re also interviewing the candidates, and there will be a video series where you can actually learn a little bit more about each of these individuals. And then we’re hoping to pull everything together once all those components are finished into an educational component.
Doug Hamilton
I assume you’re looking at volume two and maybe subsequent volumes.
Sean Coffman
Absolutely. That’s the goal. There are a lot of people doing good work in North Dakota, and we want to highlight each of them.
Ashley T.
When you talk about the part of it that will be a traveling exhibit, I’m wondering the best audience for this. Are you talking about bringing it to elementary schools? Coffee shops? Museums? All of the above?
Sean Coffman
I think all of the above. Our goal is to really … Unfortunately, human rights have become a dirty word, and people don’t want to hear that word when you’re in conversation. Our goal is to really bring that word and that idea back to what it really is about. Human rights are above politics. They’re above religion. They’re above culture. They’re things that we should be able to expect for every individual in the world. Our goal is with this exhibition is to bring a tangible example to some of these esoteric ideas that are represented in this documentary.
Doug Hamilton
You’re the founder and the chair of the North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival. Tell us about that.
Sean Coffman
I am, yeah. I’m the executive director of a new nonprofit called The Human Family, and our goal is to really promote social justice and human rights topics in the state of North Dakota through film and art. One of our second big projects that we’ve expanded upon is the North Dakota Human Rights Film and Arts Festival, which takes place in November of this year. We’re working with a number of different partners, again, including the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition to actually create a weeklong human rights exhibition. We’ll be starting off with, on Monday the 13th, our human rights arts exhibition will open at The Spirit Room. We’re inviting all artists.
Doug Hamilton
That’s downtown Fargo.
Sean Coffman
Downtown Fargo.
Doug Hamilton
November 13th.
Sean Coffman
November 13th. We’re inviting all artists of any age or any skill set. You don’t have to be a professional artist to tell a story that has to do with human rights or social justice. It’ll be included in the festival. That opens on Monday. We are … I’ll just make the announcement now. We originally had a two-day film festival, but due to the quality of films and the number of films that have been submitted, we’ve expanded that to a three-day festival. So our film festival will start on Wednesday, November 15th, and we’ll go through Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, we’ll culminate the human rights week with the 2017 Human Rights Summit with the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, their Arc of Justice Awards, where they’ll actually give awards to individuals who are doing tremendous work in our communities. And then we’ll close out that week of exciting human rights work with an arts celebration and awards reception at The Spirit Room for the arts exhibit.
Ashley T.
Human rights is definitely the kind of subject that can stay with you and leave a nauseous pit in your stomach. How do you keep your head in the game when you have to continue to work in this, even if your focus is celebrating the successes in the field?
Sean Coffman
Because it is about the successes. I think when you look at the individuals who are doing this work, when you talk about Sue, when you talk about Barry, when you talk about Josh and Stacy and Deb Dawson, these individuals are just so passionate. They’re so positive, they’re so focused on the good in the world and making sure that that good is available to everyone that I find that incredibly inspirational.
Doug Hamilton
How is all of this supported? How are you funded? How are you keeping solvent as you put all this together?
Sean Coffman
Absolutely. Right now, the documentary, “Those Among Us: The Human Rights Champions of North Dakota” is being self-funded by Shane and I. We are devoting our time and our money to make this project happen. We do have a Crowdriser set up through the nonprofit The Human Family to raise money, and eventually, we’ll have a fundraiser for that. But right now, it’s through us. You can access the Crowdrise page right now through our website at thoseamongusnd.com. The film festival, we’ve got a zero sum budget, so we’re using the ticket sales and the submission fees for the artwork to help pay for the Fargo Theatre, is where it’s going to be premiered this year. We also were the recipient of a $500 grant through the city of Fargo’s Human Relations Commission. That’s gone a long way to help pay for some of the expenses as well.
Doug Hamilton
The Fargo Film Festival has become a staple of downtown activity in March of every year.
Sean Coffman
That’s right.
Doug Hamilton
Is this Human Rights Film Festival something that you want to continue every November, for example?
Sean Coffman
It is, actually. Our goal is to … We’ve already started talking with the theater about continuing this next year. Our goal is to really have this human rights week awareness an annual event every November here in Fargo, North Dakota.
Ashley T.
Sean, you mentioned in the project of the six people that you mentioned who are already selected and featured in “Those Among Us: The Human Rights Champions of North Dakota, Volume One,” at least five of them are doing work that is specific to North Dakota. Is there a policy angle then that you can go after? Are you going to present this to lawmakers? Are there things that we can do locally that, not to make these people work themselves out of a job, but anyone who works in this kind of thing does want to work themselves out of a job.
Sean Coffman
Absolutely. I think every one of these individuals would be happy if they didn’t have to do the work they were doing. Yeah, you’re 100 percent correct. There are two goals. The first is we want to create a historical archive of what people are doing today so that 200, 300 years from now if somebody wanted to know what was taking place in North Dakota in terms of human rights protections and work, what was happening, who was doing that work. To that end, our goal is to actually present these wet plate images. So one of the things we didn’t share is that these glass images, which are the highest resolution you can ever get on any type of photo process that’s taken in silver nitrate, these images will last for a 1,000 years. Our goal is to gather all of these glass plates and all of the essays that were written by these individuals and present them to the state archives for historical keeping. So they’ll be in the historical archives for the next 1,000 years. Students of human rights can actually go and look up Deb or Sue or Barry and see who these individuals were.
Second, I do hope that we can provide this printed book to all the legislators and individuals in government to show the work that’s taking place in this state.
Doug Hamilton
Sean Coffman, one of the creative forces behind the project “Those Among Us: The Human Rights Champions of North Dakota, Volume One.” You can check it out at thoseamongusnd.com. Thanks for being with us, Sean.
Sean Coffman
Thank you very much for having me.
Doug Hamilton
Next on Main Street, a report from Harvest Public Media…

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