Some job titles for city staff will soon be changing, as Duluth seeks to remove the word "chief" from its leadership lexicon.

Mayor Emily Larson said the discussion about renaming jobs began internally at City Hall.

"You know, names and language and what we use to call things really matters," she said.

Larson said that much of the language in the city charter still skews toward the masculine, saying, "When a gender is identified, it's always 'him.'"

She contends that updating Duluth's language in the city charter to be more gender-neutral and sensitive to other cultures makes sense.

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Duluth Mayor Emily Larson
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson

"It really grounds us in our work, and it can better reflect the work we do now, in terms of more modern language," Larson said, explaining some of the thinking behind a proposed charter modification that will go to the Duluth City Council on Monday. The council will be asked to approve changing the current title of chief administrative officer to city administrator, and Larson expressed her hopes Wednesday that councilors will unanimously support the new title.

Although it doesn't require a change to the city charter, Larson said Wayne Parson, the city's chief financial officer, also will receive a new title: finance director.

Larson said she's still not sure about exactly how or whether to change the titles of the city's police and fire chiefs.

"When you get to public safety, that language is very built into the framework of associations and peer-to-peer efforts and connections," she explained.

But Larson said Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken and Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj are not opposed to the idea of title changes.

"So just finding the right language, our chiefs are interested in that and ready for that, but it is not something that we have really settled on at this point," she said.

When asked to explain the misgivings people have regarding the use of the term "chief," Larson responded: "It is language that is offensive to people who are indigenous and actually offensive to a lot of people, especially when there is other language available."

Alicia Kozlowski, a community relations officer for the city who is also a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said, "Oftentimes the word 'chief' is used as, I would say, a racial epithet, and it turns into a microaggression."

Even though outside criticism has not been directed at the city for its use of the term "chief" in job titles, Kozlowski defended the idea of making a proactive change.

"We have the opportunity to do better and be better before we are asked," she said.

Larson noted that the Duluth Charter Commission reviewed and unanimously recommended the title change for Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman on May 6.

"It is a language change to more accurately reflect the city that we are and the city we are becoming," she said. "We are dropping the name 'chief' with intention and with purpose so that we have more inclusive leadership and less language that is rooted in hurt and offensive and intentional marginalization."

The city of Duluth selected a new flag in August 2019. (Image courtesy of the city of Duluth)
The city of Duluth selected a new flag in August 2019. (Image courtesy of the city of Duluth)

City flag statement tweaked

On a separate front, again in the spirit of making the city feel more welcoming and inclusive, the Duluth City Council also will be asked Monday to approve a revised "Duluth Flag Statement."

After a public process that involved community input, the Duluth City Council approved a new city flag and a design statement in August 2019. But city officials now feel the process was rushed.

"Our big misstep came from not slowing down the process and doing targeted outreach to underrepresented communities in Duluth. … Important voices were missed," said Mollie Hinderaker, a city planner.

The city has since partnered with members of the Duluth branch of the NAACP to review and revise the flag design statement "to be more reflective of all of Duluth's communities." Hinderaker said the city reached out to black, indigenous and other communities of color.

"This process included listening deeply to elders, leaders and youth of color in our community," Hinderaker said. "It was so critical to pause and to take extra time for people to feel seen and heard and valued and reflected."

Kozlowski said the extra work that went into a new flag statement was worth it. She said it "set us on a trajectory to really build upon momentum and catalyze us as a city to elevate the visibility of all of our incredible and diverse community members."

That new flag design statement includes an acknowledgement of "the ancestral and contemporary presence of the Anishinaabeg and many other tribal nations who have called this community, Misaabekong (the place of giants), home for millennia."

It also notes: "The flag is a symbol for all of Duluth's residents and visitors and represents our commitment to equality and inclusiveness." It goes on to say: "As a community, we embrace the word Umoja — an African principle meaning unity of family, community, nation and our unique ancestries."