Alicia Kozlowski: Leading With Heart

Growing up, Alicia Kozlowski was exposed to sicknesses including racism, violence, depression, and substance abuse. She also saw her grandmother overcome addiction and become a powerful advocate for change. These experiences shaped her path and continue to inform the way she lives and works.

Ever mindful of who and where she came from, Kozlowski introduces herself as Ozaawaa Anakwaadookwe (Yellow Cloud Woman) of the migizi (eagle) clan. Her mother is Anishinaabe- Ojibwe and her father is Mexican- American. She was raised in Duluth’s West End by her mother’s family, who hail from the Grand Portage and Fond du lac Reservations.

“I would say being raised and mentored by super fierce women who just figured out a way to adapt and thrive despite some pretty serious, challenging barriers is what helped me to get to where I’m at today,” says Kozlowski, who became the City of Duluth’s Community Relations Officer in February 2019.

Kozlowski points out that Ojibwe women are matriarchs who have always held leadership roles in their communities. She was primarily raised by her grandmother, Clara Kozlowski,who was part of a group of esteemed women (including Nora Hakala, Geraldine Kozlowski, and Ruth Meyers) known as the “Big 4” in Indian Country and American Indian Education for their advocacy efforts.

These women would show up at meetings concerning community issues to ensure Native voices were being represented. This helped teach Kozlowski the importance of having a seat at the table and using her voice.

A first-generation college graduate, Kozlowski completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She then went on to obtain an MBA at the College of St. Scholastica focused on leadership and change.

After serving on committees related to strategic planning and community development for the City of Duluth, Kozlowski felt particularly compelled to have a career in public service. “I didn’t even know you could get paid to do this kind of a thing,” she marvels.

Kozlowski considers her position in the mayor’s office a dream job. She takes pride in advocating for people and working to empower community members to speak up for themselves. “My heart beats strongly for the people that are walking through disparities and barriers so that there’s equity, access and success for each person,” she says.

With this role, Kozlowski says she has an opportunity and a responsibility to use the gifts she’s been given. She likens herself to a quilt maker who has a vision of the completed project in mind. Her task is to work through the intricate details, stitching people and resources together— cutting away barriers for a beautifully cohesive result.

Under Mayor Emily Larson’s administration, the city is prioritizing affordable housing, the opioid epidemic, and creating a healthier city, which are “completely heart issues” for Kozlowski. “As Anishinaabe people, we talk about living our heart way. We are the people of the heart way,” she explains. “It means living in a way that is good for ourselves, that is good for the community and good for the next seven generations.”

Kozlowski admits the position has had a steep learning curve, but she feels supported and encouraged. The women who have modeled leadership for Kozlowski, in her life and at City Hall, have demonstrated “you can be gentle and soft — and also fierce and strong — all at the same time,” she says.

This is a way of leading that uplifts, rather than diminishes, multiple voices and experiences, which is central to Kozlowki’s goal of helping bring the community’s vision, hopes, and dreams to life.

“To me, success is creating an environment where I’m not the only one,” Kozlowski says. “Creating an environment where I’m not the only woman. Creating an environment where I’m not the only Latina or Anishinaabe person at the table. That to me is tremendous victory.”

Her advice to every woman: “Be brave, be bold, do not let anyone make you invisible. We belong in every space and every place.”