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Interview with Andrea Warren Deegan
Assistant Director of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition (NDHRC)
by Dana Williams

[Andrea Warren-Deegan, the Assistant Director of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, was kind enough recently to answer the following questions for me. She responds to questions about the Coalition, about human rights in the state of North Dakota, and what common, everyday people like us can do in the struggle for greater human rights. My sincere gratitude goes out to Andrea for taking the time to answer my questions, and for the important work she and the Coalition does.]

First, how did you personally become interested in and get involved in this work?

Since I can remember, my mother was an activist for Native American rights. By watching and learning from her, I developed a deep interest in the rights of my people, which evolved into an interest in the rights of all people. Personal experience has also brought me to this point in my life. As a half Native American and half African American woman, I have felt prejudice and experienced violations of my own human rights. It is these experiences and lessons that have motivated me to be involved in human rights for all people.

Could you describe what the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition (NDHRC) is and what it does?

The NDHRC is a statewide non-profit membership-based organization that provides education on human rights, including discrimination, civil rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and information on how human rights are protected and addressed in North Dakota. The Coalition was established in 1999 and formally organized in the 2002. The NDHRC's mission is to effect change so that all people in North Dakota enjoy full human rights.

Does the NDHRC work with local, community groups? If so, who and how? How about national groups?

Two of the goals of the NDHRC is to continue working with community groups to help create local human relations commissions in 8 regions and 4 reservations, and to assist in the creation of student human rights groups in high schools and campuses throughout the state. Just last year, NDHRC's Director, Cheryl Bergian, traveled to more than 10 cities throughout the state to discuss with various community groups the current status of human rights in North Dakota and the importance of establishing local human rights commissions. The NDHRC has supported and assisted in the creation of three human relations commissions, the Dickinson Human Relations Commission, Fargo Human Relations Commission, and the Bismarck Human Relations Committee. The NDHRC maintains a state focus, however supports national issues and groups that directly impact human rights in North Dakota.

So, is the NDHRC a coalition of individuals or groups?

The NDHRC is a broad-based coalition of individuals and organizations with an interest in the furtherance of human rights in North Dakota.

How would you (and the NDHRC) define “human rights”?

The NDHRC uses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when defining human rights as: “the recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world...”

I am especially fond of the Dalai Lama's eloquent description of human rights:

“...for it is the inherent nature of all human beings to yearn for freedom, equality and dignity, and they have an equal right to achieve that.” - The Dalai Lama, New York, USA, April 1994

What do you say to people who think oppressed groups are demanding “special” rights? How does this differ from “human” rights?

By definition, human rights are not “special rights”. Human rights are those rights that permit all of us to live in equality with each other. It seems to me that those who complain about “special rights” believe that if someone else is given a right, somehow that grant of a human right takes away a right from the person complaining about the “special rights.” An example of this is a white male student who believes that affirmative action somehow gives women or people of color rights that he doesn't have as an applicant at a university. From his perspective, the university's dedication to increasing the diversity of its campus is taking away his right to attend that university. Rather, what affirmative action does is give the university a way to diversify its student body so that it has qualities that the campus has decided are necessary, just as if the university had decided that it needed to have more students from outside the state, or more male students as the female to male ratio was equally unbalanced. This does not take away rights, but is a recognition that the failure to provide for human rights needs to be remedied in some way.

What issues does the NDHRC spend the most of its time on?

The NDHRC works to address all of the goals set forth by its board members. The Coalition's goals for 2004 are as follows:

  1. Transform the political landscape in North Dakota by increasing the diversity of representation in state and local government, including increasing the number of women, people of color, people with disabilities, and openly gay people
  2. Work to create an independent human rights commission in North Dakota with law educated staff in 2005 legislative session
  3. Work to pass comprehensive hate crimes legislation in North Dakota
  4. Work to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the North Dakota Human Rights Act
  5. Create student human rights groups in high schools and campuses
  6. Support the sovereignty of Tribal Nations and address human rights issues in Indian Country through various avenues, including encouraging North Dakota schools to change their Native American mascots and logos
  7. Assist in the creation of local human relations commissions in 8 regions and 4 reservations

Depending on public interest, state legislature, and current events the focus may shift from one goal to another. For example, as we approach the 2005 legislative session, our focus will shift to addressing goals 2 through 4, and so on. The NDHRC Board of Directors decides the specific goals of the NDHRC on an annual basis - a difficult task given the broad range of activities that could be within the scope of human rights in the state.

What are some of the most commonly asked questions directed at the NDHRC?

Q: What is the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition?
A: The North Dakota Human Rights Coalition (NDHRC) is a statewide non-profit membership-based organization that provides education on human rights, including discrimination, civil rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and information on how human rights are protected and addressed in North Dakota. The Coalition was established in 1999 and formally organized in the 2002. The NDHRC's mission is to effect change so that all people in North Dakota enjoy full human rights.

Q: Is the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition a state agency?
A: No. The North Dakota Human Rights Coalition is not a state agency. The NDHRC is a non-profit organization independent from the state government of North Dakota. I believe some people may be confused because the Coalition has included North Dakota in its name. The state agency responsible for human rights is the North Dakota Department of Labor, Human Rights Division. The division is responsible for enforcing the North Dakota Human Rights Act and the North Dakota Housing Discrimination Act.

Q: How do I file a human rights complaint?
A: To document and file a complaint, you should contact the Division of Human Rights within the North Dakota Department of Labor. (Specific information on filing a complaint with the Division of Human Rights is available here.) All complaints filed with the Division of Human Rights are open records and therefore available to the public (to anyone who asks for them). It is helpful to the NDHRC when people file complaints with the Division, so we get to follow the process of the handling of the complaints.

Has their been an increase in crimes against Muslims, Arabs, or South Asians in North Dakota in the last few years?

The NDHRC hasn't been looking for this specific information, but hasn't heard about incidents that would indicate that there has been an increase in crimes against Muslims, Arabs or South Asians in the past few years. There were a few incidents in which Muslims felt potentially threatened shortly after September 11 in Fargo, but nothing that rose to the level of a crime. There was also one assault in rural Grand Forks County that appeared based on the victim's Arab heritage. It should be noted that the Muslim, Arab or South Asian population in North Dakota is statistically very small (i.e, the Asian population in North Dakota is .6% of the state population), so the number of incidents, if any, would also be relatively few.

Is the true that North Dakota is the only state without a governmental human rights body?

No. The North Dakota state government has a human rights division within the Department of Labor. The division is responsible for enforcing the North Dakota Human Rights Act and the North Dakota Housing Discrimination Act. This responsibility includes investigating complaints alleging discriminatory practices, educating the public about human rights laws, and studying the nature and extent of discrimination in North Dakota.

Has there been much success in impacting state legislation or local policies?

The NDHRC was unsuccessful in 2003 in its primary goal of the creation of a North Dakota Commission on Human Rights. The NDHRC did testify against a proposed constitutional ban on affirmative action, which failed. The NDHRC supported the efforts of Equality North Dakota, a statewide gay/lesbian/transgender/bisexual advocacy organization, to have safe schools legislation passed, which was also unsuccessful. The NDHRC also supported the efforts of the North Dakota Disability Advocacy Consortium to pass legislation that enabled people with disabilities to work and maintain health insurance coverage, which passed.

The NDHRC was successful in encouraging City of Bismarck Mayor, John Warford, to establish the Bismarck Human Relations Committee.

The NDHRC encouraged Governor Hoeven to consider the gender of applicants when making his decision on the appointment of a district court judge in Fargo. The most recent judicial appointment was a woman.

How is the general reaction to NDHRC's work in the state?

The NDHRC has supporters throughout the state. We have organizational and individual members in Fargo, Bismarck, Mandan, Grand Forks, Minot, Jamestown, Dickinson, Williston, and Edgeley. The Coalition has been asked by various communities to come make presentations on the work of the NDHRC and/or help start local human relations commissions. The NDHRC had over 70 participants at its first annual conference in October 2003, and has over 200 PAUR Report (Programs, Announcements, Updates, Resources) email recipients statewide. The PAUR Report is the weekly e-mail newsletter of the NDHRC.

What is the most controversial position/demand/goal of the NDHRC in North Dakota? Why?

I believe the most controversial goal of the NDHRC is to add a prohibition of sexual discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the North Dakota Human Rights Act. With much of the nation discussing gay marriage and rights, this related goal will be the most challenging to address. The conservative nature of the state could make the issue difficult to resolve.

What needs to be done to advance the struggle for human rights in the state?

The state legislature needs to create an independent human rights commission in North Dakota. A North Dakota Human Rights Commission would include people who represent those who experience discrimination, such as older people, people with disabilities, people of color and women. The proposed Commission would operate in addition to the current Division of Human Rights in the North Dakota Department of Labor.

The North Dakota Human Rights Coalition has proposed the Commission because the Division of Human Rights has not been able to respond adequately to the needs of the citizens of North Dakota.

What do people need to be aware of that's going on politically in the state? Any trends to watch?

I believe that the issue of human rights as a political trend in North Dakota is being placed on the back burner of politics and taking a side seat to other popular topics like youth out-state migration and other issues relating to the state economy. Important as these trends are in creating an inviting and favorably developing state, it is equally important to address the need for improved human rights and how this plays an inherent role in positively impacting these trends. Being a state that welcomes diversity and is prepared to address issues that diversity might bring makes the state more appealing to those considering moving into the state, and current state residents.

How can people in the state, such as Grand Forks residents help out?

Help support the NDHRC and our goals. Visit our website at www.ndhrc.org and learn more about our work and what you can do to help. Help start a local human relations commission; encourage friend who is a women, person of color, or person with a disability to run for a leadership position in state or local government; become an NDHRC volunteer; or simply become a NDHRC member. There are still people that do not know that there is a place to go for help and people that want to make a difference in the treatment of our fellow North Dakotans with regard to their human rights. Let's work together to empower them in their communities, state legislature, and our society at large.

 

VastLane