ChangeMakers: For two-spirit legislator Alicia Kozlowski, community is everything

A person wearing a ceremonial vest poses in front of colorful murals
Rep. Alicia Kozlowski poses for a portrait in front of a hand-painted mural in Gichi-ode' Akiing, meaning "A Grand Heart Place" in Ojibwe, in Duluth on June 14. The mural is part of a larger installation painted and coordinated by Fond du Lac Band descendant Moira Villiard, and honors Chief Buffalo, an Ojibwe leader who journeyed to Washington, D.C. in the 1850s to advocate for tribal land rights.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, throughout June MPR News is featuring stories about transgender and nonbinary Minnesotans making an impact. See more at mprnews.org/changemakers.

Alicia “Liish” Kozlowski is a self-described “reluctant politician.” Their path to office started with running — literally.

More than a decade ago, Kozlowski helped form a community healing group in Duluth called KwePack, which is a group of women and gender-expansive people who run, mountain bike and rock climb together. The group built community that led Kozlowski to their identity, to connection, to leadership and service and, eventually, to becoming the state’s first nonbinary legislator.

Since then Kozlowski, 35, whose Ojibwe name is Ozaawaa Anakwad or “Yellow Cloud,” has been serving as state representative for their hometown of Duluth. They are of Mexican and Anishinaabe-Ojibwe ancestry and identify as nonbinary and two-spirit. Two-spirit is an umbrella term used by some Indigenous people to describe a nonbinary gender identity or sexuality that encompasses both a masculine and feminine spirit within their Native traditions.

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Kozlowski said their biggest victory from their first legislative session is the passage of a bill adding gender-neutral bathrooms in Minnesota schools, an effort led by queer youth in Duluth.

Aside from being a parent, partner, sibling and runner, Kozlowski is passionate about “standing in the gap” for LGBTQ+ Duluthians and Minnesotans.

“We come from clan systems and I'm ‘Migizi,’ which is Eagle Clan,” said Kozlowski. “That means that I step in – elected official pairs very well with being in Eagle Clan. You're kind of the person that goes forward, envisions ahead and helps to bring in the community and bring everybody in. And that's what has been my mission and purpose for how I want to show up and do this work.”

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you tell me about your roots in Duluth?

I grew up in Duluth most all my life. I grew up in the neighborhood, we call it West End, Lincoln Park. And I was raised mostly by my grandmother. My birth parents both struggled with addictions and the impacts of trauma from colonization. I spent a little bit of time just down the road on the Fond Du Lac Reservation.

I also was adopted in adulthood by a really beautiful Native family. They have two daughters of their own already, and they just swooped me in and took me under their wing. My adoptive mom is also a healer. She does a lot of grief work in the community with youth and with people who have been incarcerated. 

My [adoptive] dad was the late [Ray] “Skip” Sandman, who also had run for office and he was a traditional healer. He did naming ceremonies and grief ceremonies, helped people walk all sorts of different ways in life. He’d always say to me, ‘What are you going to do for the water? What are you going to do for the land? What are you going to do for the youth? And what are you going to do for our elders?’ And he passed away just this last November right before the election. That was sad, but I definitely carry him in this work.

It’s like a quilt I’d say, just a mix of chosen family, and I think that’s very indicative of queer people in general.

I’m super proud: Anishinaabe-Ojibwe and my grandmother’s side, my mom’s side is Grand Portage way up in northern Minnesota. Then my grandfather's side is the same with my mom's side, also from the Fond du Lac nation, which is just south of Duluth. But I’m also actually a really proud Mexican American. My dad is Mexican American and so [I’m] Indigenous to the north and to the south.

Could you talk a little bit more about your path to working for the city and becoming a legislator? 

So my path to becoming a legislator was maybe a little like a river — twisty. Growing up in the way that I did I had a lot of disconnection between self, family, community and cultural connections. Then into my first job, I was working in corporate sales, and it was there that I actually met other Indigenous people and other Black and brown folks who were running. I always ran and loved trail running, just kind of out here by myself. 

I met this group and we actually formed what's called the KwePack. So “kwe” is Ojibwe for woman. It's just a space for women and gender expansive people to come together and run. We say we're more than a running group. We do everything from 5k’s up to 100 milers together.

We mountain bike, we rock climb. And also creating those spaces as Indigenous people to really pick back up and reclaim our cultural ways of being and knowing and ceremonies and just creating space for women and gender-expansive people to really empower each other. That is a lot of the work of healing our trauma and creating pathways for generational strength. 

So that is, I guess, like the basis of how I got into organizing or community healing was through KwePack because our reservation actually has a lot of — any population of color, especially Native folks, face obesity, diabetes and heart disease, mental health, anxiety, suicide. Pretty soon it was this movement within our own tribal community that even the doctor started prescribing the KwePack to our community members as medicine, like “Hey, you're having anxiety, go around with a KwePack,” or “Oh, you just got out of treatment and you need these connections, go run with this group.”

And then that transpired into ‘Let us help you get employment,’ or ‘If you want to start a business, we have people who have these social connections and connect you with those resources and walk you along the process.’

We had other folks in the group who went from being in prison, having their kids taken away, being addicted to meth and substances, struggling with depression. After a couple of years of running with us and spending time together in sort of this like society that we've created, this cultural group, that they were able to get their kids back, secure employment, start going to school and getting a house.

That’s kind of a long way around to say that work that I had done with community is what spurred me to go on to get my MBA, because I realized that we face so many barriers to housing and economic justice, and opportunities, and we're just plagued with addictions and violence in all of its forms. To really get it at the root means going and getting the tools so that I can be a part of addressing and uprooting violence in our communities, and making sure that our people have stable, affordable, secure housing, and as well as economic opportunities.

That led me on to go and work at the mayor’s office. After I got my master’s in business administration, I then became the community relations officer and I got to work right next to the mayor of Duluth for four years, working on all those issues of how is it that we create a big, bold vision that is going to make sure that there's racial and gender equity, so that everybody can live their fullest lives.

What drew you to a career in public service?

I call myself a reluctant politician. At the heart of it was coming to this space with the identities that I have, as well as the lived experience of having gone through homelessness and all of the disparities, health care, all of these things that we know that face Black and brown folks are what I've gone through. I was really drawn to respond to my community who asked me to run for office, because it’s not something that I would have jumped in and just thrown my hat in for the run.

I was raised up by my grandmothers and my aunties. I come from a matriarchal community that really instilled in these women, and as well as myself and many others that you just stand in the gap, right? You go and you don't have to be the smartest person in the room, you don't have to know all the answers. But you show up and you bring your people along.

When I closed my eyes, and when community members were calling and reaching out, “Please consider running,” that I couldn't say no to them and I couldn’t say no to my grandmas. And as Indigenous people, we also think and talk about the next seven generations. That we’re not just planning for this year and the next, this winter season and the next winter season. It's for those next seven generations. And so I couldn't say no to our grandchildren, right?

Who are your trans or nonbinary heroes?

Growing up I didn’t see people who were queer, who were gender fluid. And I realized as I went on in my life, that there were examples. Some of those folks have been [U.S. Rep.] Sharice Davids who is one of the first Native and queer people elected to Congress. 

When I was starting to really reckon and rumble with all my identities, seeing Sharice just being an openly gay person and a Native person and showing that within our communities that have been colonized it is traditional to be queer, it is traditional to be two-spirit, that this land is two-spirit since time immemorial — I think that was like one of the most profound.

Who is a rising trans or nonbinary leader in Minnesota?

One of them would be Khayman Goodsky. Khayman works with our young people, our young queer folks, is leading a lot of the work for cultural resurgence, and also in our storytelling, through the Minnesota film industry. It’s really showing us how we carve out that space for ourselves within predominantly white spaces and tell our own stories and not have stories told about us. 

The other person is Breanna Ellison, who has been a really good friend for a long time, is a Black, queer, young leader in Duluth and doing a lot of work around how do we create communities that are truly safe and healing, you know, addressing police accountability? How do we have government systems at all levels that actually truly meaningfully engage people of color, and folks who have been historically excluded? They're actually in the role that I had at the city as community relations officer.

Is there something that you would want people to know about the trans or nonbinary community in Duluth?

We actually have a really large population of trans and gender-expansive people in Duluth, just being a regional hub and where we’re situated. I’m really proud of the community that has grown and continues to do the work to make sure that we’re a place that is welcoming and embraces everybody’s gender, sexual orientation and all their identities. We have just amazing organizations, from Duluth-Superior Pride to Trans Northland, we have the WE Health Clinic and a housing network that is especially supportive of our young queer youth. 

I think the narrative is sort of like it’s only white people who live in northern Minnesota. And I think that trans and gender nonconforming folks don’t get the airtime and illumination that they deserve for all their amazing work. We have people in our communities who are your neighbors, relatives, friends, educators, or running successful businesses. They’re doctors, lawyers and social workers doing this incredible work to sustain and grow our communities. That’s what I really want Minnesota to know.

Would you like to share anything that is nourishing you outside of your professional life?

I really use my traditional medicines, and in this work, the way that I’ve been taught is to say your name out loud to announce yourself to the spirits. Let the world know that you’re coming and you’re coming in a good way. And so I really do a lot of that, using my tobacco, my asemaa and reminding each other that, hey, whatever it is for your cultural practice, rely on your medicines, and it’s also okay to cry in this work. Tears were our first medicine and this work can be really hard.

Is there anything that feels meaningful to you that you haven’t been able to talk about?

Growing up, I always kind of felt like I was walking around in this dark forest. Really struggling with who am I, you know, and where am I going. And once I was able to pair that identity of being Ojibwe person, being a Mexican person, and being two-spirit, like it was like this puzzle that I always felt like something was wrong with me.

And I realized that there’s nothing wrong, it’s that the world needs to catch up with us. And so I think that's a lot of the work that we're doing and that I think particularly Black and Indigenous people are positioned well to do to walk us back home to a world that always was for two-spirit people.

One of the things my cousin said to me when I told her that I’m queer was ‘That’s beautiful. You should never have to come out because there’s no closets in the teepee or the wigwam.’

Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: All of this month as part of our Changemakers series, NPR has been profiling trans and non-binary leaders making a difference in Minnesota. Today, we'll hear more from DFL Representative Alicia Kozlowski, who made history last November as the first non-binary person elected to the Minnesota legislature. The 35-year-old Minnesotan represents their hometown of Duluth, where they live with their partner and 9-year-old daughter.

Kozlowski, who is non-binary and in Native culture two-spirit, previously worked as community relations officer under Duluth Mayor Emily Larson. They also helped form a community healing group in Duluth called KwePack, which is a group of women and gender expansive people who meet to run, mountain bike, and rock climb together. Reporter Nicole Ki spoke with Kozlowski about their life before becoming a lawmaker.

NICOLE KI: What drew you to a career in public service?

ALICIA KOZLOWSKI: Oh, I call myself a reluctant politician. At the heart of it was I think coming to this space with the identities that I have as well as the lived experience of having gone through homelessness and all of the disparities, right, health care, all of these things that we know that face Black and Brown folks are what I've gone through. And so I think having walked through that just gave me this sense of when we're talked about, when we are featured or not featured, it is often times through a deficit lens.

And so I was really drawn to respond to my community who asked me to run for office because it's not something that I would have jumped in and just thrown my hat in for the run, but also paired with I think I have the audacity to believe that the strengths and the identities and the experiences that I was bringing had something to offer Minnesota beyond just sort of being on the, quote, unquote, "right team to push the right button," but it's not just who leads, but how they lead. And doing that with and for our community was definitely what drove me here.

NICOLE KI: Who is a rising trans or non-binary leader in Minnesota that you can think of?

ALICIA KOZLOWSKI: There's so many to name. But I'll just say, actually, one of them would be Khayman Goodsky. So Khayman works with our young people, our young queer folks, is leading a lot of the work for cultural resurgence, and also in our storytelling through the Minnesota film industry that's growing in Duluth and Northern Minnesota, greater Minnesota is really showing us how we carve out that space for ourselves within predominantly white spaces and tell our own stories and not have stories told about us.

The other person that I can think of is actually Brianna Ellison, who has been a really good friend for a long time as a Black queer young leader in Duluth and doing a lot of work around how do we create communities that are truly safe and heal, addressing police accountability? How do we have government systems at all levels that actually truly meaningfully engage people of color and folks who have been historically excluded?

And so they're actually in the role that I had at the city as community relations officer and executive leadership. And so those are just two people that I think of that are working in predominantly white spaces and heteronormative spaces and changing it for the better.

NICOLE KI: Is there anything that you feel comfortable in this space to say or share that feels meaningful to you or that you haven't been able to talk about?

ALICIA KOZLOWSKI: Growing up, I always kind of felt like I was walking around in like this dark forest really struggling with who am I and where am I going. And once I was able to pair that identity of being an Ojibwe person, being a Mexican person, and being two-spirit, it was like this puzzle that I always felt like something was wrong with me. And I realized that there's nothing wrong. It's that everything-- the world needs to catch up with us.

And so I think that's a lot of the work that we're doing and that I think particularly Black and Indigenous people are positioned well to do to walk us back home to a world that always was. For two-spirit people, like I said, we've always had our practices. We never had to hide. One of the things my cousin said to me when I told her that, hey, I'm queer. And she was like, awesome. That's beautiful. You should never have to come out because there's no closets in the teepee or the wigwam.

And so being able to move us to that reality, whether it's making sure that people understand and there's language to articulate our identities through are pronouns that there's spaces and physical spaces, whether it be outdoor or libraries or restrooms or workplace places that affirm queer folks because we're not going anywhere.

CATHY WURZER: That was Duluth DFL Representative Alicia Kozlowski speaking with NPR's Nicole Ki. You can find our whole Changemaker series of interviews and photos at nprnews.org/changemakers. Changemakers.

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