How a Virginia Tech alumnae forged a path that led to the No. 2 post at the USDA
Jewel Bronaugh earned her doctorate from the School of Education in 2000.
June 16, 2021
This wasn’t the original path for Jewel Bronaugh. She didn’t intend to become the deputy secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture and the first Black woman to hold the position.
An educator by trade, Bronaugh instead wanted to follow in her parents’ footsteps and become a teacher. She wanted to work with people and help them achieve success in the classroom.
But instead of following their path – she forged her own. Now, she’s not only helping youth achieve success, she helping the entire country.
On May 13, the former dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University and 4-H youth development specialist was confirmed as the deputy secretary of the USDA after being nominated in January by then President-Elect Joe Biden.
“I fully understand the historic nature of this confirmation, along with the responsibilities of my service in this role,” Bronaugh said. “I join thousands of dedicated civil servants at the USDA who work in every state and 100 countries around the world. I know from experience how their work touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. I value their work and identify with their selfless commitment.”
The former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will face her biggest hurdle yet when she becomes second-in-command at the USDA.
But her roots in Virginia Cooperative Extension and at Virginia Tech’s partner land-grant institution, Virginia State University, helped her prepare to handle everything that awaits in the road ahead.
“Dr. Bronaugh has done exceptional work for the commonwealth, and we have no doubt that she will continue to do so at the federal level. We look forward to working with her and USDA as we address our country’s agricultural, nutritional, and infrastructure needs.”
—Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine
Land-grants and leadership
Virginia’s land-grant institutions exist to give higher education opportunities to people who otherwise would not have had that chance. It’s the outreach arm that disseminates knowledge to the people.
“These institutions took a chance on me before I even believed in myself,” said Bronaugh, who earned her doctorate from the Virginia Tech School of Education in 2000. “They gave me the chance to become an administrator. Where would I be without Extension, Virginia State, and Virginia Tech? I have no idea. They’re the ones that pushed me forward and let me stand on their shoulders.”
The Petersburg, Virginia, native got that start when she returned to the commonwealth to be closer to her family after teaching at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. An opening for a 4-H youth development specialist job caught her eye. She had taught high school before, so she knew what it was like to work with youth.
“4-H is an incredible organization for youth that is focused on how to empower young people to become leaders,” Bronaugh said. “From my involvement in 4-H and 4-H camp, there are so many people I know who are successful because of 4-H.”
Ed Jones, the director of Virginia Cooperative Extension, has worked with Bronaugh since she was an Extension specialist. The two continued to collaborate as she rose through the ranks at Virginia State University, Extension’s partner institution. Jones said a large part of the excellent working relationship between the two universities can be traced back to Bronaugh’s tenure as dean of the VSU College of Agriculture.
“Jewel does not have a big ego, so people warm to her easily, and consequently she can build meaningful and lasting partnerships,” Jones said. “Her style is very authentic and that gives people the space to trust her and know their trust won’t be betrayed.”
Jones said these traits, along with her willingness to listen, make her an excellent leader.
“The value of listening as a leader is incredibly important, and Jewel does it extremely well,” Jones said. “If you are not listening you are not taking in additional perspectives that can help you make decisions better. Leaders who do not listen only hear themselves.”
Throughout Bronaugh’s roles, she has maintained her passion for the people, said M. Ray McKinnie, dean of Virginia State’s College of Agriculture and 1890 administrator.
“To me, her greatest ability is that she understands that there’s a person at the other end of the policy, programs, and program development,” McKinnie said. “We build programs and we design things, but they impact people. She’s never forgotten that.”
“As dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University, Dr. Bronaugh inspired many first-generation college students from rural communities to become outstanding leaders in their fields. That is understandable considering her positive, uplifting nature. She speaks respectfully of producers and rural Americans and believes that as a public servant, her job is to find a way to help those who need it. I look forward to working with Dr. Bronaugh to ensure USDA lives up to its calling as the People’s Department, to be a department that serves all people equally and fairly.”
— USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack
Richard Booker, a retired Extension Specialist and assistant administrator for Extension at Virginia State University, worked with her at the university and helped mentor her.
“Jewel has always been significantly concerned about the programing, methodology, involvement, and the results of programing for our clientele, especially the communities of the minority and underserved,” Booker said. “She had a genuine concern for the diversification of small farmers in their production techniques and crops.”
Alan Grant, dean of the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, served on the Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services board with Bronaugh when she ran the board meetings.
“I’m always so impressed by her leadership style, and I think she is so effective because of her strong interpersonal skills,” Grant said.
He also said her strong belief in the land-grant system and its inherent ethos of service has been a guiding light throughout her career.
“I think that those of us who work at land-grant universities are serving society, and that is something that has been part of Jewel’s career,” he said. “I think that the land-grant university experience prepares people well if they want to go work in government because it is all about service. This is a core part of who Jewel is and is one of the many reasons she’s going to excel in this new role.”
An open ear for farmers
Bronaugh honed her leadership skills during the statewide travels with farmers as both an Extension specialist and dean of Virginia State’s College of Agriculture and 1890 administrator.
During some of these travels, she saw the heart and soul of Virginia’s producers firsthand, and she got to know Robert Mills, who is the 2017 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year, a former member of Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors, and graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
At a Farm Bureau convention in Hot Springs, Virginia, Mills opened up to Bronaugh – who was then the commissioner of the VDACAS – about the mental state of farmers in Virginia. It’s a difficult topic that few people want to talk about.
This was at a time where prices were depressed. The economy wasn’t great. There was a constant stream of farms that were going up for foreclosure. The suicide rate of farmers was high.
“We sat down at the couch there in a little atrium room and I poured my heart out to her,” Mills said. “Her response to what I told her about the folks that I love so much here in Virginia was from the heart. It was overwhelming in the sense that she took what I told her, ran with it, and started a farm stress task force.”
Bronaugh’s ability to listen to farmers has led to an increased focus on the vital topic.
Coinciding with the new task force, Virginia Cooperative Extension and professional agency partners conduct and go through training on how to identify critical mental health needs of farmers and farm family members in their communities. This includes agents having much-needed tools for talking to and providing referrals for farmers and family members who may need professional support and health care interventions.
“Sometimes it's sitting down or standing across from a farmer and seeing them cry. Sometimes it's been out of frustration. Sometimes it's been out of joy. They are honest in what they share with me and the help that they need to continue to make the contributions to their communities and their families,” Bronaugh said. “It moves me, and it’s what motivates me to do the work that I do. The decisions that we make impact someone’s life.”
To this end, Bronaugh helped create the Virginia Food Access Investment Fund and Program, a statewide program that aims for equity and justice in underserved food systems in the commonwealth.
Because of her ability to listen to the needs of farmers, they love her, said Rosalyn Dance, a former member of the Virginia Senate and the Virginia House of Delegates.
“She wants to hear what farmers have to say and to find a solution,” Dance said. “That’s why they trust her. They can’t be anything but happy to know that someone they know and who is genuinely concerned with their issues is at the USDA.”
An inspiration for those to come
In a voice vote, the United States Senate confirmed Bronaugh in May, officially making her the first Black woman and woman of color to serve as the USDA’s deputy secretary and a role model for many.
Bronaugh said she understands the responsibilities that come with a position of this magnitude.
“My job is to represent all people who are clients of the USDA,” Bronaugh said. “But I do understand that my role as a woman and my role as an African American can require me to speak up for people who may feel that they have suffered systemic racism and discrimination. I have a role to play in being a voice and in sharing a perspective, if necessary. I realize that this is part of the responsibility of who I am and what people see in me in this role.”
Through all of her positions and roles in agriculture, Bronaugh continues to be a trailblazer.
“As the first in Virginia to be a woman, minority and Black in holding the positions that she has held, Jewel should and will continue to be a role-model for African Americans, especially females, and women of all backgrounds,” Booker said.
Dance, who has known Bronaugh since childhood, knows the caliber of her character.
“She hasn’t changed over the years,” Dance recalled of Bronaugh’s willingness to work hard and the dedication to her family. “She’s done everything the right way. Her confirmation is a promise to African American girls that they too can excel and can reach the highest levels of government in the United States.”
In her new role, Bronaugh will rely on the experiences she had at Virginia State University, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia 4-H, and Virginia Tech in working for all farmers, producers, and rural communities that rely on the USDA. Virginians saw what she can do. Now the United States has this opportunity.
“Jewel’s confirmation is great for Virginia, great for the country, and great for farmers,” Mills said.
Written by Max Esterhuizen