Profiles in Practice: Muria Kruger

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Growing up on a wheat farm in far northwestern Minnesota, Muria Kruger learned life lessons from her father’s wisdom. Those lessons included the importance of listening, steady growth, trying new things, and helping others. Since then, Kruger has found “soul-filling” work in ensuring stable, affordable housing for diverse communities of the Twin Cities.

Before leaving rural, small-town Minnesota for college at Hamline University and then the University of Minnesota for law school, two particular experiences influenced her decision to be a lawyer. First was her church. “My early religious experiences revolved around community and justice,” she said. The second happened during her summer as a guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area when she saw a nearby outfitter company quickly displaced in a legal dispute. “I saw the power of having access to a lawyer. I decided then that I wanted to work so that everyone would have equal access to that power.”

In law school, renowned human rights professor David Weissbrodt took her under his wing and involved her in the drafting of an international human rights code of conduct for businesses. “It was a big deal at the time, and he allowed me to be part of that,” she said. For several summers in a row, she spent all of August with Prof. Weissbrodt and his staff in Geneva trying to get the code of conduct adopted by a U.N. human rights body. 
A couple years out of law school she got a more typical attorney job—litigating class action lawsuits for plaintiffs. While she got to work with attorneys all over the country and enjoyed the collegiality of the practice, “Sitting at a desk all day was not for me.” From law practice, she moved back to the University of Minnesota Law School as the Director of International and Graduate Programs where she was able to travel the world. 

Notwithstanding her early career successes, Kruger struggled in her twenties. She says she was a people pleaser without much of an identity outside of work and didn’t listen to her own personal boundaries. “True change came,” Kruger said, “when I did the one thing I thought I would never do: have a kid.” After seven years in the workforce, Kruger transitioned from a fulltime program director to a fulltime stay-at-home parent. This abrupt change, however, led to much greater personal happiness and a volunteer opportunity that put Kruger on what she views as the “right” career path for her.

A couple months into fulltime parenthood, Kruger answered a call for volunteers from the Dignity Center, a faith-based social service project based out of the Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church, that supports people living in poverty on their path to stability. Kruger eventually started a legal clinic at the Dignity Center in partnership with the Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN). Over a period of eight years, Kruger volunteered weekly and built the clinic to include six other regular lawyer volunteers and a clinic assistant. After about eight years, just as naturally as Kruger left fulltime paid work, she returned to fulltime paid work at VLN as the Housing Program Manager and Resource Attorney. 

As a VLN staff lawyer, Kruger oversees VLN’s participation in housing court clinics in Hennepin, Ramsey, and Anoka County. “I’m proud to say VLN has over 300 active housing volunteers who, in 2019, donated over 2,300 hours of free legal consultation to impoverished Minnesotans with housing issues.” Last year, VLN’s housing program also entered into a high-profile partnership with Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. Through the More Minneapolis Initiative, 16 of Minneapolis’s largest law firms agreed to increase their pro bono time on housing matters. 

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. A quick web-search brings up multiple news articles about Kruger and her housing program successes. She was even appointed to the St. Paul Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity Commission.
As to her motivation and passion for helping people with housing needs, Kruger stated the problem bluntly, “The racial disparities in evictions are blatant; visible to anyone simply by seeing who is sitting outside of housing court on eviction day.” Statistically, the most likely demographic to get evicted are single, African-American mothers. “The importance of stable housing to individual and community well-being cannot be overstated,” Kruger added.

If Kruger were to name the top issues to improve housing stability for renters, reforming eviction expungement would be at the top. An eviction action remains on a tenant’s record, even if the tenant prevails. This creates an onerous imbalance in the landlord-tenant relationship. Tenants are often afraid to assert their rights for fear of retaliation by a mere eviction notice that could tarnish their future ability to get housing.

Kruger asserted that Minnesota has one of the fastest eviction processes in the county. Slowing down the eviction process would help tenants and landlords alike. According to Kruger, “Ninety percent of eviction cases are for rent nonpayment.” She continued, “Most landlords just want their rent. But the timing of emergency rent assistance payments is slower than evictions. So a slower process would allow for financial assistance for landlords to get paid; and tenants keep their home.”

When asked what she finds motivating about working with such challenging issues, Kruger said she is inspired by the resilience, humanity, and humor of her clients. “I particularly enjoyed the relationships I was able to develop with Dignity Center clients. They challenged me and helped me grow in ways that made me a better person.”

When asked about leadership qualities of a good legal aid program manager, Kruger admitted she enjoys managing her staff of five and multiple programs. “I enjoy connecting people and building collectively on our strengths.” She also described VLN as a collegial environment where she feels supported in taking risks, which she believes is key to growth and a positive work environment. As a manager, she tries to support her own staff members in taking risks and building upon their individual interests and strengths. 

For personal time, Kruger lights up describing her family, running and gardening, including helping her children grow award-winning giant pumpkins for the state fair.

by Satveer Chaudhary

s@chaudlaw.com

Mr. Chaudhary is an immigration attorney in Minneapolis, specializing in criminal defense of noncitizens and complex immigration circumstances. He lectures frequently on immigration topics and writes an immigration blog at immigrationqa.com. He also offers consultations to attorneys representing noncitizens in any matter.