Jewel Bronaugh, the No. 2 person at the US Department of Agriculture and the first Black woman in the position, will leave the department on Tuesday after a two-year tenure in which she led agency efforts to diversify its workforce and provide relief to farmers of color who say they have been discriminated against over the years.
Bronaugh announced last month that she was leaving the agency in order to spend more time with her family. Xochitl Torres Small, the under secretary for rural development, has been nominated to succeed her.
Along with helping steer a department that boasts 29 agencies and more than 100,000 employees across the country, Bronaugh has played a central role in the USDA’s efforts to remedy decades-long discrimination that has impacted farmers and ranchers of color. Most notably, she has co-chaired an independent commission that has examined the USDA’s policies and programs for factors that have contributed to historic discrimination against farmers of color and identify disparities, inequity and discrimination across the agency.
“I understood as a Black woman, coming into the role as deputy secretary, the weight that went with that. The responsibility that went with that. The people who for years have not been able to get resources from USDA. The history that that has had on farmers and landowners and people who live in rural communities, I knew that I had a responsibility,” Bronaugh explained in an interview with CNN.
“I knew coming in that there was a lot of work to be done and I was going to have to be real to that commitment, not only to everyone that USDA serves but specifically as a voice for people who have felt like they had not had a voice that represented in their interactions with the USDA. It was my responsibility to carry that.”
Born and raised in Petersburg, Virginia, by educators, Bronaugh at first had aspirations to become an educator herself and earned a bachelor’s degree in education from James Madison University.
But after earning a master’s degree and doctorate in vocational education from Virginia Tech, she stepped into agriculture when she took a job as a 4-H extension specialist at Virginia State University, a historically Black college and university. She also became dean of the College of Agriculture at Virginia State University and was executive director of the university’s Center for Agriculture Research, Engagement and Outreach.
In May 2018, she was appointed commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and made history as the first Black woman in the position. She was confirmed to her current role in May 2021.
At USDA, Bronaugh led international agricultural trade missions in the United Kingdom and countries in East Africa to help US farm businesses and organizations strengthen export and trade relationships.
She also helped create a chief diversity and inclusion office within the Office of the Secretary and has focused on diversifying USDA’s workforce, which has seen a slight uptick in the number of employees of color over the course of her tenure. According to USDA data, 73% of USDA employees are White, 28% are employees of color and 11% are Black. Forty-five percent of USDA employees are women.
Her very presence atop the department has been inspiring for current and former Black USDA employees, including Shirley Sherrod, who was the USDA’s director of rural development in Georgia before being pushed out under controversial circumstances in 2010.
“The fact that she is the first Black woman to hold the position means a lot to us. It gives us hope for the future,” Sherrod, who is also a member of the Equity Commission, told CNN. “When you look at the US Department of Agriculture and you look at all of the actions we have suffered as Black people trying to get the programs that should have been available to everyone, to access them and feel that they were being implemented fairly – to actually have someone in the second position … really helping to oversee that and have a voice in places we don’t normally get a chance to be in, just to me meant a lot.”
As Bronaugh prepares to leave the agency, one of her final orders of business will be to release the Equity Commission’s interim report on its findings on Tuesday, which she hopes will provide a blueprint for acting on the inequities she has tried to address during her time at USDA. She said there is no time frame on when the agency will begin implementing the recommendations but she is hopeful it will happen immediately. If confirmed by the Senate, Small would be tasked with presenting the commission’s final recommendations to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack later this year.
“Being able to get the Equity Commission to a set of interim recommendations has been huge for me,” Bronaugh said. “That is going to give us an opportunity to look at, you know, where we have discretion, where we have authority and where we have resources to immediately start to address some of the historical inequity issues here are USDA.”