AGNR Celebrates Women's History Month: Bonnie Braun

Decades of Visionary Leadership to Improve Health and Health Literacy for Marylanders and Beyond

March 10, 2021 Graham Binder

The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR) is steeped in rich history, dating back to 1856 when the University of Maryland (UMD) was founded as the Maryland Agricultural College. Pursuits associated with farming and agriculture are often perceived as male dominant, but over 150 years since its inception, the college proudly maintains a decidedly different balance in its workforce and student body. Women comprise 75% of the population within AGNR including students, faculty, and staff.

This month, the college pays tribute to the historical contributions of four of our retired women faculty and staff who have helped make our college what it is today. Some are still contributing at a very high level, even well into their retirement. Each leader has left behind a significant legacy, helping to embed foundational programs and ideas into the fabric of AGNR. They also served as outstanding mentors and ambassadors for the college, with a commitment to enhance the lives and livelihoods of those around them.

Bonnie Braun

Retired Family Policy Specialist with University of Maryland Extension

After 22 years as both an academic and administrative faculty member with Extension appointments in 3 states and at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Braun began her appointment with University of Maryland Extension (UME) on January 1, 1999 as a family life specialist.

She hit the ground running immediately with a project focused on food security and health as the Maryland leader of Rural Families Speak, a 17-state study that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Her findings were incorporated into the UME SNAP-ED and EFNEP programs. The work continues as the longest, most comprehensive regional study of rural low-income families approved by the USDA.

Braun’s position grew and morphed from family life to family policy specialist, spending the next two decades continuing to improve the lives and livelihoods of Maryland citizens. Her work follows a highly effective pattern of deep situational analysis, followed by swift action and adoption that addresses the root of health literacy problems throughout the state.

Braun’s analysis of impacts of the Medicare Modernization Act on senior citizens for the Maryland General Assembly produced state legislation that filled major gaps in health insurance coverage. She co-created a guide for cultural competency and health literacy education for Maryland professionals, which was published by the Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. She created an in-person and online course in health literacy for undergraduate and graduate students and Extension educators. She served on a USDA four-year Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) research and Extension grant, Linking Health Care Reform and Economic Development in the Agriculture Sector, where she produced findings that influenced the American Farm Bureau’s decision to emphasize farmer stress and led to a series of forums in four states on strengthening the health and vitality of farms and farmers.

She co-lead UME’s multi-award winning Health Insurance Literacy Initiative, and co-chaired the UME Health Smart program. According to Braun, the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 placed great demands on consumers to understand health insurance. Yet, the ACA did not provide for consumer education. She and others founded the UME Health Insurance Literacy Initiative (HILI) team to capitalize on this teachable moment by helping Americans take control of their personal and family financial and health needs.

“Adults needed to know how to purchase health insurance, but the law made no provision for education. I envisioned Extension as the only network capable of delivering that education.”

“HILI was launched, with funding from UME and AGNR, after I developed a partnership with the Consumer’s Union (CU) and the American Institutes for Research (AIR),” explains Braun. “Two programs, Smart Choice and Smart Use, with five modules, were created by the team to both build the ability and confidence of adults to choose an appropriate health insurance plan and to use benefits of the plan. The goal of the programs were to reduce confusion and increase the confidence and capability to make smart decisions and take smart actions.”

The list goes on. And these accolades only represent her legacy before retirement.

Since officially stepping away from Extension in 2013, she continues to serve UME in a part-time capacity as a consultant focused primarily on reducing stress and building resilience across the farming population and farming communities. She also serves on AGNR’s Global Leadership Council.

“I am currently the co-chair for UME of the Connect Extension New Technologies in Agriculture Education funded project. The purpose of the project is to engage professionals, farmers, and consumers on the Eastern Shore in determining how to reduce risk and build resilience in response to COVID-19 disruptions across food and farm systems,” says Braun. “We are testing the effectiveness of online forums compared to previous on-site forums.”

Braun shares that over the course of her career, she was mentored by women and men who invested their time, experience, and wisdom in her, and that she would not be the same professional today without their guidance. As she matured professionally, she understood she needed to give back to both the men and women of diverse ages, races, and ethnicities whose lives came in contact with her own. The mentees included classroom students and faculty or staff in AGNR and the School of Public Health.

“Always, I explained and demonstrated the value of Extension in the diffusion of research and applying the research to the lives of youths and adults across the state and beyond,” says Braun. “Of the approximately 20 UMD undergraduate and graduate students I advised and mentored, most were from urban areas and didn’t know about the land-grant mission of UMD nor about UME. All were impressed and excited to be working on research and/or Extension projects funded through AGNR or external funds. They valued being part of studies and programs that brought them in contact with the lived experiences of diverse people in diverse communities.”