This week, UNLV alumna Jessica Walters Murrey, ’10 BS Journalism and Media Studies, did what she always does when she wants to sort out her thoughts: She pulled out her keyboard and started crafting a story, her story.
It was her way to work through the emotions in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer. And her way to offer concrete steps that people can take make this American moment a turning point in history.
The result is an essay she published on Medium — as a person of color raising two young children with her husband in a predominantly white community, and as professional working now as a communications expert with Search for Common Ground, an international nonprofit dedicated to conflict resolution.
But, the former UNLV volleyball player says, conflict in and of itself is not bad.
“Conflict is human. Conflict is inevitable. But conflict is also opportunity,” she said of the main point she hopes to convey. “It’s our inability to deal with differences that stops progress on every issue we face — in our education systems, with systematic racism, xenophobia, health care, you name it. Peacebuilding is the process of dealing with conflict.”
Her career as a peacebuilder has taken her to countries from Jordan to Thailand and Kyrgyzstan to Columbia. She also recently co-founded and is CEO of the startup W!CKED SAiNTS Studios. But it all started in a classroom on the UNLV campus.
What opportunity do you see in this moment for our country?
I really do believe there’s an opportunity to make positive change right now — an incredible opportunity to make change both in the hearts of people and in the systemic issues that perpetuate disparities in communities.
My essay was really aimed at addressing the non-black people in my life because I see them wanting to do something. But I want both them and people of color to understand how we can attack the problem and not each other.
It’s so hard because nonwhite people get so tired. They say to me, “I shouldn’t have to educate people on the black experience, engage with people who say hurtful things.” And they’re right and I don’t want to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. But I do want people to think about the bigger goal. The work can be done with those on the fence of racism; you don’t want to push them over into hate. You can — but you don’t have to — address bias and turn them into an ally with us.
Historically, universities have been places where social justice movements often take root. But as large bureaucratic organizations, they also must grapple with systemic racism within. How can they move forward at this moment?
Universities can take a good hard look at themselves — from the application process to hiring practices to student resources, to all that. But what I’d really like is for universities to reach for more.
People on a campus like UNLV may look around and see various groups of African American people and think that that means they’re included. But you have to also recognize that there’s elitism that goes along with being in college. It is a place of privilege. If you got to college, well, you’re now part of that.
But what about the people who never got there? Universities can do so much to reach into their communities — to help their students reach into their communities — and to create space for people to come and just listen.
Talking about race issues is hard, but universities can be the place where those talks happen, so long as they’re willing to listen through the uncomfortable conversations.
I mean, there’s such a lack of knowledge about history, especially the history of marginalized people, even if you’ve gone to college. You have to purposefully study it to begin to understand why it’s so difficult to move up in this world. To know about redline districts and how once very successful black communities were destroyed and how that might make it hard to just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
How are you addressing conflict in your position with Search for Common Ground?
Search is the largest nonprofit aimed at conflict resolution. We have more than a thousand staff, but most work at the local level in countries across the world. My job is to help teach the peacebuilders at the local level how to use strategic communication principles.
After I started working there, I realized we had a hard time getting to the stories of what peacebuilders do around the world every day. What most organizations do is approach communication through branding. But the problem with branding is that it’s top-down, and it tries to sell people on the issues. But once people think you’re selling them something, they become skeptical.
So I’ve developed this method I call the tattoo method that combines common ground activism and teaches people to attack the problem, instead of each other, and focus on the shared goal. I call it Tattoo, because social change is more about showing people something — through stories — and letting them see it themselves and claim it, like their own tattoo.
You got your degree in journalism. How did that lead to peacebuilding?
It started with the most benign assignment in professor (emerita) Mary Hausch’s class. She told us to go walk into some building on campus and find a story. I chose the engineering building and I found a poster for the Engineers Without Borders (student organization). They were planning a trip to Ghana and invited me along. And then Mary connected me with a local TV station and suddenly I was there, sending footage back as a correspondent for that local news station.
Mary also helped me get an internship with (U.S.) Sen. (Harry) Reid. I was one of a few paid interns that got to go into the Capitol building and the war room. I loved it, but I also learned enough to know that I didn’t want to be in American politics. I really envisioned myself at a newspaper in New York or D.C.
This was in 2010 during the Great Recession, when the job market was really tough for new grads.
And print newspapers were dying. I went back to my hometown in southern Oregon and eventually got a job as a special projects coordinator at a small local TV station doing their awareness campaigns. I really learned a lot about strategic messaging and communicating to educate around anti-sex abuse, anti-domestic violence, pro-education, that kind of thing.
Eventually, I found myself wanting to stop telling stories about awful things and to figure out a way to stop bad things from happening. So when my husband got into Georgetown for his master’s and we headed back to D.C., I was really interested in international relations. I came across a job opening with Search and was lucky to soon find myself running their communications department.
Our newest graduates are now facing another really tough job market. Do you have any advice for them?
Get scrappy. My first job wasn’t big and fancy, like I first envisioned. Instead, because the station was so small, they gave me tons of responsibilities and it turned out to be my ticket to the big leagues again.
When I look to hire interns and entry-level positions now, I don’t care where you went to college, just that you had a good GPA, because that shows you worked for it, and I look at your portfolio, to see if you took the initiative to start building that.