In 2016, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson elevated the city’s human rights officer to a cabinet-level position, one reporting to city-level meetings.
It marked a change in the acknowledgement of human rights in the city — a way to make sure all people were considered in decision-making by positioning the human rights officer alongside everyone from police chief to public works director.
The decision received unanimous approval by the City Council.
“It was of deep interest to me to elevate that role to be at the decision-making table of leadership and of the city — to have this person have a voice in every element of what we do,” Larson said earlier this month.
In the multitude of days since Carl Crawford took over the post leading the Human Rights Office four years ago, he has filled out a role as broad as the shoulders of his trademark three-piece suit.
“Do we have racism here? You better believe it. Discrimination, bias? All of the above,” Crawford said.
In a city that built the nation’s first reconciliation monument to the country’s lynching history — the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial on downtown East First Street — Crawford sees and hears what others do not.
“Racism and discrimination don’t work between 8 and 5,” Crawford said. “When someone feels willing enough to share their story of what’s happening, you capture it then or that door may close.”
But sources confirmed difficulties in trying to capture the bigger picture of injustice in Duluth. Larson said the city was forced to lay off the only other staff person in the Human Rights Office as an economic repercussion of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope is to hire back the person.
“It is actually an office that could use multiple staff going in all of these different angles,” Larson said. “I would love to hire more people for this department, there’s no question.”
Currently, it’s a one-person office too busy to reflect.
Ask about the historical difference between numbers of complaints related to, for example, housing or businesses, and the city can't say, because it does not keep a record.
Crawford had been working to create a system when the office’s staff person was taken away.
“It is a priority,” Crawford said. “The mayor has listened and we are trying to find ways, without a doubt. My office — we realize what’s at stake. It’s important to have a system in place.”
To hear Crawford tell it, it’s always been this way.
“We didn’t have a playbook,” he said. “There’s going to come a time I’m not in the office. We need to start to create a history, a legacy, a database — whatever you want to call it — a system that someone will be able to step in and continue the work, instead of starting from scratch.”
Crawford’s heavy load
But the job looks differently today. It’s broader and made more complicated by events such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.
“We have a lot of folks who are upset, scared, don’t know what’s going on, angry, don’t feel heard,” Crawford said.
He’s the city staff person facilitating its human rights and disabilities commissions — as well as the Duluth Citizen Review Board, which advises police.
He designs training, speaks at prison groups and community colleges across the state, and is a member of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage.
Crawford is so well-known from a career in local education, he’s approached at all moments of his public visibility in order to resolve or at least listen to people and their complaints about discrimination, injustice or plain grievance.
“Carl knows everybody,” Larson said.
Crawford orders meditation between conflicting parties, secures disabilities compliance, and works with schools, employers and housing organizations.
He goes to court with people at a moment’s notice, and helps give people the confidence to “find their words,” he said, to express concern at events such as school board meetings.
“His is a micro job and a macro job,” Larson said. “He’s doing very individual casework. He’s showing up for people in ways that matter for them, whether it is a Sunday morning coffee hour with somebody who reached out and had concerns about their experience with a neighbor, or an organization or with a police officer. And then he’s also facilitating these really big community conversations and showing up in big ways on policy issues. It’s a tremendous amount of work.”
Crawford investigates complaints — based on things such as race, disability, sexual orientation and age — within areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
Complaints move from Crawford to the Human Rights Commission’s findings committee, which reviews and determines which complaints have merit to move forward with an investigation. Once green-lit, a case will move back to Crawford. The individual can at any point file with the Minnesota Human Rights Commission. Cases cannot reside in both city and state bodies at the same time.
It can get complicated. Sometimes, the city’s Human Rights Office isn’t the first call, it’s the last, Crawford said.
"Do we have racism here? You better believe it. Discrimination, bias? All of the above."
— Carl Crawford, Duluth human rights officer
“I get many different complaints, some are human rights complaints,” he said. “But there’s not a complaint for, ‘I had a really bad experience in this store’ — there’s no category for that. Sometimes it’s dialogue and conversation about making this store owner aware this happened. How do we prevent that in the future?”
It’s difficult for people to share their complaints, whether it’s from LGBTQIA, Indigenous or homeless communities.
Investigations sometimes stop prematurely because there is a lack of people coming forward, or people choose not to start the process at all.
“When I’ve dealt with racism, it’s painful, it’s personal,” Crawford said. “There’s the question of ‘Do you want people’s point of view on your experience?’ The question becomes ‘Why did you stay there?’ ‘Why did you go there?’ — instead of fully understanding it.”
There are days when he doesn’t leave the office the same way he arrived.
“There’s crying, there’s anger, there’s pain, and I hold those stories with confidence,” Crawford said.
What discrimination can look like in Duluth
It is hard to recognize how the 2013 death of a 4-year-old white boy from Pope County, Minnesota, could have reverberating impacts on children of color more than 200 miles away in Duluth.
But that’s what Paula Stocke described as happening after 4-year-old Eric Dean was killed by an abusive stepmother that year. Dean had been the subject of frequent maltreatment reports, leaving child protection work in a glaring media spotlight.
In response, a resulting statewide task force reacted by adding scores of pages to the guidelines of what constitutes maltreatment.
The balance between keeping children in their homes and removing them for out-of-home care shifted toward the latter.
“The pendulum swung, because nobody wants a child to die,” said Stocke, St. Louis County children and family services director.
The ensuing years in Duluth saw some children of color removed from families at a rate as much as 14 times their white counterparts.
Those incidents have seen desperate parents of minority children landing in Crawford’s office.
“I’m dealing with folks who are losing their kids, man,” Crawford said. “They’re losing their kids and they’re helpless and we’re fighting a big system that relies on someone to point and tell a narrative of who they were maybe in their worst hour.”
Stocke didn’t sugarcoat the dilemma, which saw 7.5 white children per 1,000 removed from their families in St. Louis County in 2019, compared to rates of 106.5 for Native Americans, 54.2 for African Americans and 50.8 for mixed-race children.
“I know some people in the federal government don’t want us talking about systemic racism, but how can we not?” she said when talking about the disparity in those figures.
The county is not alone in those disparities, which are reflected across the state, Stocke said.
The city’s Human Rights Commission sees recurring complaints about reunification of families separated in the child protection system.
Often the cases involve families of color experiencing mental health and addiction issues, or those working through treatment, said Duluth Human Rights Commission Chair Bettina Keppers.
“The complaints are from the biological parents feeling like they should be reunited with their children (and) who have done the work and are questioning why this is happening,” Keppers said.
Many people in marginalized communities feel there's a lack of power and safety in confronting these issues, she said.
Child protection is just one of the issues that confronts Crawford and the office.
When the pandemic started, he heard from minority workers in essential jobs who weren’t provided proper personal protective equipment.
Crawford also described one family confronted by an age-old discriminatory tactic in Duluth.
The family moved back to Duluth and when they tried to get financing for a house in eastern Duluth they ran into lending complications of a sort which didn’t surface when they landed a different home in a downtown neighborhood.
“We do have complaints where people are not being treated fairly,” Crawford said.
State records support that, with 81 complaints filed by Duluth residents since 2016 with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.
Crawford was privy to many of those, describing the local findings committee as being the body which decides if complaints have merit and whether Crawford should investigate.
So far in 2020, 10 complaints have been filed with the state.
Moving forward can’t be city’s job alone
Elevating the role of human rights officer within the city hierarchy brought forth new challenges.
“When you’re asking some core questions that have not been asked in that way before, you find out the well is exponentially deep,” Larson said. “The well of work, the well of trauma people have, the well of policy change that needs to happen, the well of discrimination that happens intentionally or unintentionally.”
She would like to expand the city’s human rights department.
But for now, Crawford works closely with a team made up of the city’s community relations officer, its city attorney and city clerk.
He said they are committed to building a process for collecting data on the city’s human rights complaints.
“We want to be proactive and the only way to do that is to have some of that data,” Crawford said, “to understand the trends on what’s happening.”
But Larson said it’s not just up to just Crawford and the city.
“We don’t see Carl as the only person who can do this work. In fact, he can’t do it alone,” Larson said. “The city can’t be the only entity championing fairness and equity. The more we embed this within the community, the more effective efforts will be.”
This year, the Human Rights Commission is aiming for more participation and collaboration.
The group is building webinar platforms and learning opportunities around the history of redlining in Duluth, symbols of hate, and understanding the history of white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan in the area, Keppers said.
They’re also collaborating with the Indigenous Commission and the African Heritage Commission on declaring racism a public health emergency.
“There’s nothing stagnant about human rights,” Keppers said. “It’s evolving all the time and we’re all going to make mistakes, and apologies and humility are going to be necessary for our community to heal from the wounds that we have. It’s going to take everyone doing the work to make it possible.”
The city of Duluth is currently awaiting its annual Human Rights Campaign Foundation score. Last year, the city received an 86 out of 100 — a score that rose from 57 and a pair of 66s in the first years of Crawford’s work.
There are things the city has done, Larson said, that it doesn’t always broadcast, such as ensuring bathrooms for people who identify as transgender and want to be comfortable using the restroom.
“In my experience, people who benefit from those changes in policies, they know,” Larson said. “They’re watching. They see it, they hear it."
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights investigates complaints of discrimination at a state level.
Protected classes under the Minnesota Human Rights Act include race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, disability, public assistance, age, sexual orientation, familial status and local human rights commission activity.
Examples of some protected areas are employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, and they vary per protected class.
By the end of 2019, the department had an inventory of 797 total discrimination cases; in the past five years, the agency received 81 complaints from Duluth alone. An example is this 2018 case involving a Duluth CSL Plasma worker’s allegations of discrimination on the job.
For more on the Human Rights Commission and how to apply, visit duluthmn.gov/boards-commissions/duluth-human-rights-commissions.
If you go
- What: Introduction to Duluth’s Human Rights Commission
- When: 6:30 p.m. Nov. 11, following the commission’s regularly scheduled meeting
- Where: duluthmn.gov/live-meeting