Q&A with Commencement Speaker Dr. Jewel Bronaugh

May 16, 2023 Kimbra Cutlip

Dr. Jewel Bronaugh was appointed by President Joe Biden to serve as the 14th United States Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.  She was the first black woman in that position, and she led agency efforts to diversify its workforce and provide relief to farmers of color who have endured long-standing inequities and discrimination.

Bronaugh earned her Ph.D. in Career and Technical Education from Virginia Tech, and set out on a career path in academia. She eventually gravitated toward agriculture, becoming a 4-H Extension Specialist, and Associate Administrator for Extension Programs and the Dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University.

In 2015, she was appointed the Virginia State Executive Director for the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA), and in 2018, she was appointed the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Dr. Bronaugh is from Petersburg, Virginia.  She is married to Cleavon, a retired United States Army Veteran.

You began your professional career on a very different path, earning a doctorate in vocational education. What drew you to agriculture?

I always say one never knows what life has in store.  Being open to new opportunities is incredibly important for an amazing career journey.  I never expected to have a career in agriculture leadership, especially growing up in a town outside of Richmond, VA that had few, if any, farms. I initially prepared for a career in education and ultimately wanted to be a college professor.  I reached that goal, but the unexpected passing of my father and a desire to return home to be closer to my mother brought me to a career opportunity in 4-H youth development at Virginia State University (VSU).  At VSU I found my love for 4-H youth development and extension work, and “lo and behold” my first opportunities to visit rural communities and farmers in Virginia.  I remember my first farm visit.  I absolutely loved everything about It!  Mostly, I was amazed by farmers’ passion, work ethic, and dedication and was motivated by their willingness to work so hard for a livelihood and their skills to produce food to feed the world. What more honorable profession is there?

Over the course of your career so far, what would you say are some of the achievements you’re most proud of?

I am most proud of my efforts to attempt to give a voice to those who historically struggled to be heard.  Having an opportunity to bring more attention to food insecurity in my home state, which ultimately led to the creation of the Virginia Food Access and Investment Fund to increase access to fresh foods in low-income, low-access communities, is something I am very proud of.  Farmer stress and mental health in my home state is something that I knew affected many rural communities, so I am also proud to have brought attention to and provided a platform for the issue.  While at USDA, I was privileged to co-chair the USDA Equity Commission with the goal to evaluate USDA programs and services and recommend ways to address historical barriers for accessing them.  This effort is critical to address years of historical inequities in USDA programs that continue to impact farmers across the country. Additionally, I have always been passionate about the success of young people as next-generation leaders.  So, to travel around the country to encourage young leaders in food, agriculture and related sciences, is part of the work that keeps me motivated while keeping our world alive and thriving.

As a black woman who has broken at least two glass ceilings, do you think we will see a significant narrowing of the racial justice gap continue and perhaps even close in your lifetime, or in the lifetimes of today’s college graduates?

I certainly hope so, and I remain optimistic!  Today’s youth are more aware of the impact and importance of racial justice on society and on their lives specifically.  Today’s college graduates, in my opinion, are less afraid to express themselves and more apt to articulately demand that people of all races and ethnicities be treated equally.  However, we still have a “ways to go” before that gap truly narrows. It takes generations to undo what it took generations to create.  We must continue to leverage our nation’s institutions of higher education, local, state and federal governments, for-profit and non-profit organizations, and many others, as platforms for young people to use their voice, their influence, and their economic power to demand that we be a fair and racially just society. These actions will help narrow that gap.  And we must not grow weary in this work.  For the rest of us, we must give youth the support, tools and resources they need to continue this work.

We all understand that agriculture feeds people, and natural resources sustain both our lives and the life of the planet. How do you see young people in these fields engaging with society in new ways to address our grandest challenges such as climate change, social justice, food security, etcetera?

According to the United Nations (2015), our world is home to the largest generation of youth (ages 10-24) in history.  There is power in numbers!  Unfortunately, since this age group was born, the grand challenges of climate change, social justice, food security, a pandemic, violence, civil unrest and others, are all they have known.

As young people mobilize around climate change, for instance, you see the massive power they have to hold previous generations accountable for decision-making.  The current youth generation thinks differently.  They demand more accountability for their personal sustainability.  They are more driven by entrepreneurship, they are focused on being change agents, and they are less likely to follow the paths of previous generations.  They seek education, they love science, and they grew up with technology.  Unlike previous generations, they are not intimidated by these things!  They lean on these strengths to demand action, and they challenge us to create a more fair and just society.  They are our “accountability” mechanism who hold our feet to the fire.

I saw my college-age children be passionate and unafraid to march in support of the rights of others.  That is something I would have been fearful of doing at their age, but it was something they refused to let go of without demanding that action happen.  I have a huge amount of respect for that, and it makes me hopeful for positive changes to these challenges in the future.

Leaving college and moving into a career is both an exciting and a scary time, what advice would you give to young people as they make that transition?

I have two children graduating from college this year.  They both have completely different motivations; however, my advice to them has been pretty simple…

Although you have grown up in times when people can easily “get rich quick,” that’s not what happens to most of us. Develop a good work ethic, maintain good character, and stand on your principles.  I always say that I will hire someone with good character and fewer skills before I hire someone with multiple skills and poor character.  I can teach the skills, but I can’t teach good character.  I teach my kids what my parents taught me, which is to be an honest person who works hard and seeks to do good in life.

Develop skills and expertise that people will pay you for and become the absolute best at them!  Study your craft and be ready for opportunity when it comes.  We are all naturally good at something.  That’s our life blessing.  I learned many years ago that having empathy and being able to relate to and speak to people was something I was pretty good at.  Over the years, I developed those skills.  Those skills became the ones I leaned on as Deputy Secretary at USDA.  Additionally, there are many challenges in food, agriculture, the environment that we haven’t solved.  Become a skilled problem solver…be it through science, research, writing, communication, policy development, education…you name it.  If you know how to and are willing to solve problems, there is always an opportunity for you!

Networking always helps!  Networking is something I didn’t value when I graduated from college because I didn’t understand what it meant. .  Identify the top 10-12 people you want to keep in your professional network (select them very carefully), and cultivate positive relationships with them.  Call and check on them when you don’t need anything so it’s easier to connect when you actually need something!  That’s how you build trusted connections.  They have been a key foundation of my success.

Relieve graduation pressure from yourself.  Although it may seem that your friends have it completely together at graduation and they know exactly where their careers are headed, YOU may not. If you don’t know exactly what you want to do in life just yet, it’s ok.  Prepare yourself as much as you can for what you think you want to do. Take the first step and the next step will avail itself!  I had no idea I would be the first black woman Deputy Secretary at USDA when I graduated from college.  It took many individual steps (some purely on faith and a few misguided) to get to that point.  When I graduated from college the truth is that I just wanted a job that would afford my own apartment.  That was success as far as I was concerned! But I never stopped taking the next steps.

And finally, what’s meant for you will be for you.  You never have to step on anyone else to get it!