Leading one of the nation's largest civil rights advocacy organizations, Janet Murguia is at the forefront of navigating a shifting political and economic landscape as she charts a 21st century course for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).
With 300 affiliates across the country, several regional bureaus, and a national headquarters in the heart of Capitol Hill, Ms. Murguia, NCLR President and CEO, is determined to raise the nearly 40-year-old organization's visibility and advocacy efforts among policymakers and constituents. And she is bringing a focused vision for its future.
'We are a business now and we represent the stewardship of millions of dollars, all in an effort to improve the lives of Hispanics,' she says. 'We have a strategic investment fund, we have a loan development fund. Our community-based organizations are becoming more and more business models out there. I think we do have a role in NCLR to make sure we have a good, strong business entity, as well as creating that positive impact of doing good for our community.'
It is the same sort of focused vision for NCLR that she has had throughout her professional career. And for Ms. Murguia, who was selected last year to succeed longtime NCLR leader Raul Yzaguirre, achieving her goals for the organization means combining her decades of business and political experience, as well as reaching back to her past.
'It was the classic American dream come true,' she says of her upbringing and success. 'One of the things I'm committed to at NCLR is making sure we can have that American dream be in reach for all Hispanic families. I know that power of the American dream. I've seen it come true for my family.'
Although Ms. Murguia's father Alfredo was born in Oklahoma, his family moved to Mexico when he was a young boy. There he met Amalia, who would become his wife. Together they made their way to Kansas City, Kansas, in the early 1950s. Ms. Murguia's father worked for 37 years in a steel plant and her mother provided daycare for neighborhood children to earn enough money to support their brood of three boys and four girls. Ms. Murguia, 44, and her twin sister are the youngest.
'I think my parents ultimately inspired me,' she says. 'They set a terrific example for me and my siblings. The values that they imparted reflect the positive aspects of our culture, that strong sense of faith, that strong sense of family, a strong sense of community that helps and supports one another.
'Those values have inspired me throughout my life and I think they have put me in a position where I can continue in a profession of public service and, more importantly, serving the Hispanic community. I'm very passionate about that and I feel very privileged to be in this position.'
Peers, former co-workers, friends, and others all note Ms. Murguia's passion for her work and commitment to public service are not merely lip service. She means what she says.
'What I really respect and admire in Janet is her tireless commitment,' says Monica Lozano, publisher and CEO of La Opinión, the nation's largest Spanish-language daily newspaper, and chairwoman of NCLR's board. 'Her commitment is just flat-out every day. She's not somebody who jumped in [to NCLR] because she thought it was a big name and a great opportunity to build a reputation. She has been working very hard. Her passion, her commitment, her tireless effort – and she's really smart.'
Ms. Murguia's professional journey began at the University of Kansas in 1982, when she earned bachelor's degrees in journalism and Spanish. In 1985, she earned a law degree from Kansas University and worked for former Kansas Democratic Congressman Jim Slattery as a legislative assistant, eventually becoming legislative counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and Environment.
Ms. Murguia says the congressman was a strong mentor for her in her early days on Capitol Hill. For his part, Mr. Slattery speaks proudly of his former assistant's dedication. 'She was deeply committed to trying to make the country a better place for all people,' he says. 'When you meet Janet you can't help but be impressed by the warmth of her personality, her enthusiasm, and her genuine concern and compassion for others.'
In 1994, Ms. Murguia was asked by Bill Richardson, now New Mexico's governor, to join the White House's Legislative Affairs Office. She then moved on to become a special assistant to President Clinton, eventually reaching the post of deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs. It was during that period that Democratic California Congressman Xavier Becerra first met Ms. Murguia.
Mr. Becerra says he remembers being struck that, in a town overrun by egos, Ms. Murguia eschewed the limelight and focused her efforts instead on the job at hand. 'She's a quiet operator,' Mr. Becerra says. 'She never strived to be the person getting credit for things. She didn't need to have it spelled out that her hand was on a piece of policy. She let everyone feel like they were part of the effort.'
In 1999, Ms. Murguia helped run the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign. After the election, she served as executive vice-chancellor to her alma mater before being lured back to the nation's capital to head NCLR.
'Her work on a national level at the White House has prepared her to take the reins at NCLR,' Ms. Lozano says. 'At the end of the day, NCLR is an organization that has a large component that's focused on advocacy and public policy work. But it's also built on the affiliates and the community-based organizations that really give NCLR the constituency and the strength to influence those policies. She brings experience and knowledge of the inner workings of both the Executive Branch and Congress. All of those make her extraordinarily prepared to run this organization.'
Ultimately, Ms. Murguia says her success has been a case of seizing opportunities and staying focused on her overall commitment to give back to her community.
'To be able to be involved in work that you are very passionate about makes me feel very fortunate, very blessed. [T]aking this very important role as head of this organizatioN felt more like a calling,' she says. 'I hope that I can help take NCLR to the next level.'
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