Growing up in a close-knit community in Philadelphia, surrounded by generations of her family, Maya Bracy developed a keen interest in supporting and improving the lives of children and families.
Originally on a pre-med track during her undergraduate education at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., Bracy soon realized medicine was not the only way to serve children and families. After enrolling in an introductory psychology course, Bracy knew that she wanted to lean into her love of working with people on a behavioral and mental health level.
“I learned that what I love about working with people is what makes up their choices and behaviors and what their motivations are for doing things,” said Bracy, a doctoral student in the UNC School of Education’s Applied Developmental Science and Special Education (ADSSE) concentration.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a concentration in Africana studies in 2019, Bracy entered into a post-baccalaureate program through the University of Maryland Child Development Lab. For two years, she worked as a faculty research assistant and as an Intramural Research Training Award Fellow with The National Institute of Health — Section on Development and Affective Neuroscience.
With principal investigators, Bracy focused on the origins of anxiety by analyzing the individual differences in infant temperament, social development, and behavior in relation to brain structure and function. As she conducted this research, though, Bracy also searched for opportunities to advance knowledge by incorporating her Africana studies background and a more community-focused approach — ultimately understanding how communities connect and how they remain resilient.
Her search led her to the School’s ADSSE program — a Ph.D. concentration that enables her to improve the lives of youth and their families in the context of communities and to serve individuals from diverse sociocultural backgrounds.
Within Bracy’s current research, which examines the impact of social interdependence amongst minoritized populations on child development, she draws on her personal experiences. By recognizing the richness of having people outside of her family to support her development as a person, she hopes to curate policies geared toward the developmental care of children and families.
“It’s important to look into policies or practices that expand what we think of when we think of parents or support communities and how we can integrate that into real things that are happening and how we can support people,” Bracy said.
For her interest in being an agent for change within human development practices, Bracy received a Robert Wood Johnson Grant and is a participant in the 2022 Health Policy Research Scholars Program (HPRS) cohort – a national leadership program sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for doctoral students geared toward advancing a culture of health policy.
Within this program, Bracy, who is the first Health Policy Research Scholar in the School, and individuals within her cohort utilize the skillsets and knowledge obtained through their respective fields of study to build healthier and more equitable communities.
“The community and support that HPRS provides me during my doctoral journey is so rich and comprehensive,” Bracy said. “My cohort is not only made up of interdisciplinary scholars and mentors who are working towards similar research and health equity goals, but they also all come from historically marginalized backgrounds like me. To be both inspired and feel at home with my mentors, coaches, and cohort members is really what makes HPRS so special.”
Driven by outreach and community-centered care
In addition to her Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recognition, Bracy was named as a 2021 fellow within UNC-Chapel Hill’s Weiss Urban Livability Program, a one-year fellowship that provides funding, learning opportunities, and the opportunity to design a community project that impacts urban livability in Chapel Hill. Fellows also take part in discussion forums, guest lectures, and mentoring.
In this program, Bracy collaborated with a group of interdisciplinary graduate students throughout the University to create working models surrounding what urban livability looks like, how communities thrive, and the developmental factors impacted over time.
Over the course of the fellowship, Bracy and members of her cohort participated in conversations about how to embody solidarity through community-focused work, and the group frequently returned to the question: “What is urban livability?” This led Bracy and her cohort to develop a model that explored current popular definitions. Within their interdisciplinary work, the group found that there was room to expand the definition of urban livability.
“It was a model that promoted more language around the interconnectedness of each aspect of urban life and how when researchers, policy makers, and communities are working together in just and equitable ways then we all have the opportunity to thrive,” Bracy said. “It was interesting to be around people who were working towards the same goals as me, which is to create these thriving communities that are self-sustaining.”
This community-centric approach was another factor that led Bracy to the School’s ADSSE program.
“I had the idea to be a leader or to bring resources back to people who otherwise don’t have the opportunity to go this route,” Bracy said. “I’m hopeful that I can contribute in some way that is necessary or needed to my community.”
Within her research, Bracy reflects on her childhood and the structure of care that she received in her upbringing. Through this, Bracy’s research delves into understanding more about the informal networks of care and community care options and the individuals in children’s lives outside of their biological parents who contribute to their development.
“My program within the School of Education is a lot more developmentally based,” Bracy said. “What’s really cool is I get that community or applied piece within learning more about education and how schools are a big connector of individuals, families, and communities.”
In addition, Bracy aims to utilize mixed methods to conduct research that considers nontraditional childcare, family, and community support practices and will examine the needs of LGBTQ, BIPOC, and low-income families.
Seeking a path toward continuous impact
Bracy credits her pursuit of obtaining a Ph.D. to utilizing her network of individuals who inspire her to strive for success and show the value of pursuing this degree based on her areas of interest in exploring how social and emotional components that foster community care.
“We don’t move through life on our own,” Bracy said, reflecting on the community that was central to her development. “I can’t say that I made it anywhere that I am today without the people who were in my corner helping me and protecting me. While individual factors are really interesting, what’s more interesting to me is how communities thrive together.”
While obtaining a Ph.D. was not originally in Bracy’s plans for her future, she shares that the support of her network, the ADSSE program, and the Carolina community emboldened her with the confidence to advance her education and make an impact within her field of study that will benefit minoritized communities.
“Whatever your experience is and whatever you think is important is important because it’s important to you,” Bracy said. “If you’re bringing ‘you’ forward and what you’re passionate about, someone will recognize that and take a chance on you.”
Going into her third year in the ADSSE program, Bracy, a graduate research assistant working alongside faculty members Roger Mills-Koonce, Ph.D., and Dana Griffin, Ph.D., shares that the effects of the diverse backgrounds and skillsets of professors and individuals in the program inspire her efforts to study influences on human development.
“I have a strong friend network and community network that I pour myself into because I care and they care about me,” Bracy said. “I want that to continue, and I want other people’s community networks to be just as strong.”
With strengthening her community as a priority, Bracy aspires to continue her research within the ADSSE program to cultivate her expertise within the human development practices that make a difference in childcare, family dynamics, and community involvement.