Alicia Kozlowski poses for a portrait at Lincoln Park in Duluth, Minnesota, on November 17, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Alicia Kozlowski was working full-time and going to school for a masters degree when their mother’s friend gave them a gift: a red folding chair.

“Shirley Campbell had said, ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring your folding chair,’” Kozlowski said of the Costa Rican activist. “So my friend’s mom, yes, did give me a folding chair.”

Now Kozlowski, who is Mexican and Ojibwe, is preparing to bring that red folding chair to the state Capitol in St. Paul. On November 8, they became the first ever non-binary person elected to the Minnesota Legislature, where they will represent their hometown of Duluth and the surrounding area in House District 8B.

When they take office next year, Kozlowski, 33, will be part of the most diverse Legislature ever convened in Minnesota. The legislative session starting January 3 will feature a record number of people of color—35, its first nonbinary lawmaker in Kozlowski, and its first openly transgender member—Leigh Finke.  

“My Ojibwe name is Ozaawaa Anakwad, which is Yellow Cloud,” Kozlowski said. “It’s the person that has a big, booming voice, and on a really cloudy day, it’s the person who calls and goes out ahead to help lead the way to a brighter day.”

That is exactly what Kozlowski has done for a number of people in and around Duluth for years. They’re already making an impression with their soon-to-be legislative colleagues, too.

“They seemed like the coolest person to me,” Finke said of their first meeting with Kozlowski. “They had just a cool jacket on, and I was telling my partner, like, this person felt to me like The Fonz—like the coolest person in the room. That was my initial impression. And they live up to that.”

Finke won their election November 8 to represent House District 66A that includes Falcon Heights, Lauderdale and parts of Roseville and St. Paul.

Kozlowski and Finke are two of 11 LGBTQ lawmakers in next year’s Legislature—a record number that will more than double that representation at the statehouse, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national organization that works to elect LGBTQ lawmakers.

School by Indigenous matriarchs

Kozlowski did not have a close relationship with their biological father growing up, and their mother struggled with addiction and homelessness. The person Kozlowski credits with raising them was their grandmother, Clara Kozlowski. 

Kozlowski began thinking about social issues from a very early age. They witnessed economic and emotional suffering in their family and Lincoln Park neighborhood firsthand, and received an immersive political education from Clara—a dogged Indigenous activist who was a constant presence at community meetings alongside other Indigenous matriarchs like Nora Hakala, Geraldine Kozlowski, and Ruth Meyers. 

“They just dragged me along,” Kozlowski said. “I was known as their shadow.” 

It was the strength of the broader community, Kozlowski said, that helped them become the first person in their family to graduate from college. The community didn’t stop looking out for them after adulthood. 

After Clara died when Kozlowski was in their mid-twenties, they approached Ray “Skip” Sandman, a local healer and longtime environmental activist. Kozlowski asked for Sandman’s help with their grief and the pain caused by addiction in their family. Sandman told Kozlowski that their heart was calling out for family, and he accepted Kozlowski into his family as his own child.  

Sandman died just a week before Election Day, denying Kozlowski the opportunity to celebrate their history-making win with him. But they said that they are taking his wisdom to the Capitol. 

“I think as people of color, as queer folks, we’re so quick to ask ourselves, ‘Why us?’ And he’d always say, ‘Why not us? This world needs our medicine and our hope and our joy,’” Kozlowski said. 

Kozlowski was reminded of how Indigenous people and their stories have been historically misrepresented at the Capitol when they visited recently to receive training as a newly elected lawmaker. 

“I walked in…week, and we went on the Capitol tour, and in the House chambers, you look up and there’s this image of this sort of benevolent Native woman with a group of pioneers, and it’s sort of daintily giving over the land, daintily accepting—almost a celebration of colonization,” Kozlowski said. 

Kozlowski said that moment served as a reminder of the weight of their goals at the Legislature and of the opportunity before them. 

Like many other DFL candidates and elected officials, Kozlowski was preparing to lose control of the House to Republicans after the midterm elections. Instead, the DFL won control of the House, Senate, and governor’s office, acquiring unified control of state government for the first time since 2014.  

Kozlowski believes the DFL must be bold when the Legislature convenes next year. They said that they want to see the DFL act on single-payer healthcare, housing, paid family and medical leave, and look at targeted basic income programs in the state. 

“Now is not the time to kind of play around the edges,” Kozlowski said. “Let’s drive down to the meat of it.” 

Historic wins nationwide for LGBTQ candidates

Minnesota needs to strengthen its protections for LGBTQ people, Kozlowski said, adding that some surrounding states like South Dakota and Iowa have restricted trans kids’ ability to compete in sports. Finke has similar goals for LGBTQ advancement, and also plans to advocate for the legalization of marijuana and improving access to mental health care. 

Kozlowski and Finke were interviewed for this article several days before a gunman shot and killed five people and wounded several others at the LGBTQ nightclub, Club Q, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on November 19.

“We can’t just be like, well, ‘Everyone is using their pronouns correctly, so we’ve done the work,’” Finke said. “We have a lot bigger plans than making sure people get pronouns right.”

Minnesota wasn’t the only state where LGBTQ candidates enjoyed historic victories on November 8. Oregon and Massachusetts elected the first two out lesbian governors in the country’s history, while New Hampshire elected the nation’s first legislator who is a trans man. In total, more than 340 LGBTQ candidates won in the general election, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund. 

“We call it a rainbow wave,” said Sean Malloy, vice president of political programs at the LGBTQ Victory Fund. “More LGBTQ candidates ran than ever in history, and more LGBTQ candidates won than ever in history.”

The historic success came at the end of an election cycle in which Republican candidates and allied groups spent millions of dollars attacking candidates for their support of trans rights and gender-affirming healthcare. States have introduced more anti-trans pieces of legislation this year than in any other year in the country’s history.

Malloy noted that while the attacks on LGBTQ people are harmful, they also served to motivate a number of LGBTQ candidates, including Finke and Kozlowski, to run for office. Kozlowski feels that their gender identity will be an advantage to the Legislature and the state. 

“I recognize that as a two-spirit person, as a non-binary person, as a Mexican Objiwe, this time in a world where we have a crisis of loneliness and a crisis of despair, we need my medicine of hope,” Kozlowski said. 

Kozlowski said their run for office was aided  by the example set by role models, including Lt. Governor Peggy Flannagan, state Senator Patricia Torres Ray, U.S. Representative Sharice Davids, and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. 

“You can’t be what you don’t see—or it’s very difficult to do that, if you don’t see yourself,” Kozlwoski said. “So to look around and see other folks like me, and now to be that for other people, that’s the responsibility. It’s a huge gift, and it’s also a major responsibility.” 

Kozlowski feels they are part of a movement that stirred them four years ago when they watched Davids speak to a small group in Washington, D.C. after Davids and Haaland became the first Indigenous women ever elected to Congress. 

“I remember Sharice Davids saying, ‘Running for office was not the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and if you choose to run for office—and we need you to because we need your stories and your hardest voice in these spaces—it won’t be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Because the hardest thing you’ve ever done is surviving,’” Kozlowski said. 

Kozlowski’s goal is not simply surviving, but thriving. 

“Alicia is a true bulldog,” said their friend and fellow endurance runner Sarah Agaton Howes. “That’s one of the things I really admire about Alicia: their ability to really dig into the things they believe in.”

Howes said that during much of their ten-year friendship, Kozlowski has helped others grow into their identities and achieve their goals.

“How we pick who should be a leader is looking at, ‘Who has a heart that is seven layers thick?’” Kozlowski said. “You need people who know data, who know science, who can be articulate and speak, but you need somebody who has a heart that not only beats for the people, but can be pierced for the people.”

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.