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Alumni Spotlight: Ellie Muraca

Through podcast startup, young alumna connects communities to planning and design

With Building the Beloved, urban affairs and planning alumna Ellie Muraca questions what it means to belong in the world of equitable community planning and design.

After graduating from SPIA’s urban affairs and planning program, Ellie Muraca ‘18 stayed in Blacksburg to work for the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development. However, she plans one day to follow in the steps of many inspirational educators and become a public school teacher.

Growing up, Ellie Muraca was always asking questions. That passion for finding connections and starting conversations – sometimes around difficult topics – didn’t slow when she joined Virginia Tech as an undergraduate in the urban affairs and planning program.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the 2018 graduate and Charlottesville, Virginia, native has found a calling to continue those hard but essential discussions in the service of the public good. Through her podcast startup, Building the Beloved, Muraca questions what it means to belong or exist in the world of equitable community planning and design.

Through Building the Beloved, Muraca aims to interview people from all walks of life – from prominent public figures to regular community members who are just trying to make a living. She also plans to include nonprofit organizations and community project leaders on the show. Her first interview subject was Virgil Wood, a renowned church leader, educator, and civil rights activist who served alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wood was a fitting inaugural subject for the podcast, since Muraca’s design for Building the Beloved is to continue the work of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Beloved Community concept, which guided his vision during the civil rights movement.

“The term ‘Beloved Community’ refers to a way of life that’s based on pure, unconditional love for humankind,” said Muraca. “It’s about including the individual’s singular parts that make the community a true, beloved whole.”

Ellie Muraca (left) and Tyler Magill (right) of the University of Virginia Library record audio for one of Muraca’s many audio projects.

The Beloved Community approach focuses on having difficult conversations surrounding social equity, inclusive interactions, and community well-being. These conversations often emphasize finding the root of what people are upset about in a safe and honest way. This fashion of bringing people together despite their differences is what Muraca hopes to do with her website, Jane’s Theory, and Building the Beloved.

Muraca wants her audience to know that anyone can listen to the podcast and find something of value.

“It makes me think of Mr. Rogers and “‘Won’t you be my neighbor?,’” Muraca explained of the show. “It’s the love that people within communities put into action that defines communities, not the physical attributes or aesthetics. It’s the difference between existing and belonging, and the people I interview have a genuine grasp on that.”

During her time as an undergraduate in the School of Public and International Affairs, Muraca had an opportunity to get involved in several influential student organizations and took courses across a variety of disciplines. One teacher and designer who has inspired her a great deal is Wendy Jacobson, an associate professor of landscape architecture in the School of Architecture + Design.

Jacobson’s work focuses on urban design and urban public spaces where people live, engage, grow, and learn with one another. She believes in the opportunities – not only within communities, but also within the university – to engage different perspectives.

“One goal for all of us as educators is that we not just transfer information, but that we help students learn to ask good questions,” said Jacobson. “Part of that process involves learning critical thinking skills.”

Jacobson recognizes that not all of the information being taught in classrooms will still be valid years from now, so it’s important for students to develop an informed position and engage different perspectives in order to grow on their own. However, like the Beloved Community, people have to be open and ready for this kind of growth.

“This kind of discourse can only happen when people come to it with an attitude of civility, openness, and honesty. A position of hatred or engaging in offensive behavior would undermine things,” said Jacobson. “This kind of dialogue is dependent on civility.”

Muraca hopes to foster that honesty and believes that no matter her role in life, she wants to serve the public with an attitude of civility. Even with the Building the Beloved podcast, she aims to direct the focus towards highlighting and celebrating her interviewees.

“It’s crucial to me that my work is purely focused on the people I interview and the message of love and community that the interviewees have dedicated their lives to spreading,” Muraca said of the stories the interviews tell. “We need more planners and designers that prioritize community members to feel empowered and comfortable to voice their stories and opinions.”

Muraca currently works as a project coordinator with Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development, and she hopes one day to follow in the footsteps of educators like Jacobson and take on her biggest public service role yet: to become a public school teacher.

“You can’t get more grassroots than being a teacher,” said Muraca. “Teachers directly impact the next generation of community members. It’s crucial that students know their voices matter at a young age so they can carry on with strong, confident voices into the future.”

For current and future students in the planning and design fields, Muraca has some lasting words of advice.

“If you aren’t starting conversations in the classroom, then you’re doing it wrong,” she said. “If there’s a perspective that’s not being heard, be the person to voice it and empower your classmates to do the same.”

Muraca also encouraged students to prepare to make an impact in their communities by having an open mind and being informed. “We have to start having these conversations now in the classroom,” she said. “Otherwise students might enter the beautifully wide and diverse realm of community planning with limited perspectives, and that can be detrimental to the health and vitality of a city.”

Written by Colie Touzel. Lead photo by Roderick La Foy.