Margaret Beale Spencer


Member Since: 2009

Margaret Beale Spencer is the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education in the department of Comparative Human Development which she also chairs. She is also an alumna of the Committee on Human Development. Before returning to Chicago, she was the endowed Board of Overseers Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies of Human Development (ISHD) faculty member in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Additionally, she was Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Health Achievement Neighborhood Growth and Ethnic Studies (CHANGES), and also guided as its inaugural director, the W. E. B. Du Bois Collective Research Institute. Guiding the noted efforts and continuing to frame her scholarship, Spencer’s Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (P-VEST) provides an identity-focused cultural ecological perspective. It serves as the foundation for her gender, culture and context acknowledging, developmental race and ethnicity sensitive research emphasis. The conceptual framework addresses resiliency, identity, and competence formation processes for diverse humans—particularly youth—both in the United States and abroad.

In addition to Spencer’s ongoing program of research, she frequently collaborates with groups for the purpose of applying the research findings to settings having a stated mission or purpose which addresses youths’ emerging capacity for healthy outcomes and constructive coping methods. Given that the basic evaluation and applied research activities representing intervention collaborations occur in challenging contexts, the outcomes have significant implications for understanding not just the “what” of life course human development but the “why” of particular developmental trajectories.

Accordingly, the life-course coping knowledge accrued, as a function of basic research as well as collaborative and community level applications of the type noted are critical; all promote new lines of basic scholarly inquiry particularly salient for resiliency promotion and policies intended to be experienced as supportive by envisioned beneficiaries. Thus, in addition to the ongoing basic research, as a recursive process, the outcomes of application opportunities continue to have implications for Spencer’s ongoing theory-building efforts. In fact, specifically relevant to vulnerability and resiliency, her invited collaborations with communities in Kosovo following ten years of war provides a provocative example. In parallel fashion, observations and interviews in Johannesburg, South Africa, Perth Australia (with Aboriginal grandparents) and especially relevant opportunities had in Cuba continue to represent highly significant resources for understanding needed programming for and theorizing about resiliency. At the same time on the domestic side, Spencer’s partnerships during the missing and murdered child crisis of Atlanta in the late 1970s-early 1980s were highly distressing but illuminating experiences. Similarly, insights accrued from collaborations in Detroit with myriad Holy Cross Children’s Center (HCCS) collaborative opportunities and associated experiences with the community-based Samaritan Center each continue to afford practice, research and policy relevant conceptualizations and implementation strategy insights critical for authentic change. Also informative for Spencer’s current Urban Resiliency Initiative have been partnerships in Philadelphia as community-policing collaborations linked with the State’s disproportionate minority contact emphasis as well as gleaned insights while serving as a guardian ad litem in the Family Court of Philadelphia. Accordingly, both long-term community-based domestic collaborations as well as parallel international partnerships have provided “lessons learned” critical for research, practice and policy innovations. Conceptually grounded opportunities as partnerships and innovative collaborations continue to inform and guarantee insights about human vulnerability which bridge to resiliency options no matter one’s placement on the planet.

Spencer is an elected member of the National Academy of Education and held Board Membership as well as voted fellow status in several Divisions of the American Psychological Association. She received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters Degree from Northwestern University, and the Faculty Diversity Award at the University of Chicago. She was named recipient of the American Psychological Association Division 7 (Developmental Science) 2018 Urie Bronfenbrenner Award for Distinguished Contributions to Developmental Science, and the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) Award for Distinguished Contributions to Cultural and Ecological Research. She was an inaugural fellow of the American Education Research Association (AERA) and invited to provide the organization’s prestigious Brown Lecture. Spencer received the Alphonse Fletcher Fellowship awarded for scholarly and artistic works devoted to the legacy of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Decision. She was the inaugural Director both of the NIMH and University funded W. E. B. Du Bois Collective Research Institute and the Center for Health Achievement Neighborhoods Growth and Ethnic Studies (CHANGES) at the University of Pennsylvania. More recently Margaret has launched the major Urban Resilience Initiative (URI) at the University of Chicago which is a national and community emphasizing collaboration. It synthesizes the “lessons learned” from several decades of basic research, theorizing and implementing of programming and evaluation efforts. Margaret Beale Spencer received her PhD in child and developmental psychology from the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago where she Chair’s the same department.

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