Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education

Rosenwald 305C

Contact: Oliver Garland, Operations Manager for the Urban Resiliency Initiative

Margaret Beale Spencer, Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education

Affiliate Faculty Member in the Committee on Education,

Affiliate Faculty Member in the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture

For a copy of Professor Spencer's CV, please Click Here. 


Margaret Beale Spencer is the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education in the department of Comparative Human Development.  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 opportunitiescontinue 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.

Current Research Activities

Urban Resiliency Initiative (Launched April 2016, On-going)

Guided by the domestic and international collaborations noted, Professor Spencer’s current focus is the development of a multi-pronged research and programming agenda designed to foster and unleash resiliency-promoting opportunities in urban neighborhoods and her surrounding communities.   This Urban Resiliency Initiative (URI) is a non-profit consulting and advisory group committed to providing high-quality tools and services designed to enhance and unleash and promote the resiliency of youth and adults living in urban centers. Resiliency speaks to the ability to develop recuperative and restorative behaviors (i.e. coping behaviors) and protective processes to offset trauma, whether individually or contextually derived.  URI’s principal focus is to provide multigenerational support for the four major adult oriented leadership institutions that shape, socialize and develop young people. These essential supports or “pillars” include Parenting, Teaching, Policing, and Multi-level Community Health, or to state more inclusively: Family, Education, Safety, and Universal Wellness.

Guided by principles of identity-informed leadership and purposeful wisdom goals, the URI works to positively impact the character of available adult professional supports. At the same time, it collaborates directly with community and after-school translational learning enhancing activities for affording transformative youth outcomes. The strategy is in contrast to traditional deficit-centered models. Specifically, the URI posits that all humans are vulnerable and risks and supports are unevenly distributed through society evident both historically and contemporaneously. By combining the noted cultural and context linked life course human development perspective with the dual level adult and youth legacy strategy focus, our initiative aims to maximize the potential for positive outcomes across generations and, thus, contribute to a sustainable legacy of human flourishing.


 Metropolitan YMCA Collaboration (Launched July 2017, On-going) “Developing and Determining a Community Engagement Strategy.”

The acknowledgement of vulnerability level differences affords the simultaneous consideration of both assets and challenges associated with particularly patterned outcomes or effects including resiliency as well as adversity. Health promotion is a critical asset influential for resiliency, thus, engagement in health promoting experiences is particularly salient for resiliency and especially so for those living in particular neighborhoods. The evaluation of engagement level for two communities in urban centers of Chicago should provide opportunities and suggested strategies for use in efforts for “scaling up.” The research evaluation collaboration with the metropolitan YMCA of Chicago provides such an opportunity for accruing an in-depth appreciation for and understanding of factors contributing to engagement to health promoting contexts.

Accordingly, for the current effort, engagement levels anticipated may be diverse as a function of unavoidable perceptions of assets and challenges, thus, suggesting vulnerability level variation. The theoretical framing introduced allows for the consideration of individuals’ insights and experiences as impacted by context considerations. Questions to be posed involve the “Y” as a context for individual and community level perceptions and participation, which contribute to levels of engagement.

Also acknowledged is that the conceptual framing incorporated appreciates family and community engagement and has been used to analyze and inform basic research and application efforts for diverse communities. Accordingly, it affords a helpful conceptual vehicle for appreciating patterns of engagement.


Brookwood Illinois and Graham Associates Collaborative Program and Evaluation Project (Launched June 2017, on-going).

The work is an evaluation of an identity focused system wide intervention program. The pre-kindergarten through 8th grade student, staff and community program effort reflects a collaboration with Mr. Stedman Graham and Associates, Inc. conjoined with the Brookwood, Illnois School System. The programming is a replication and extension of an east coast effort which utilizes Mr. Graham’s identity-focused and community wide effort having the ultimate goal to improve academic resiliency of urban neighborhood youth along with community and school based teachers and staff. Although aspects of Mr. Graham’s philanthropic effort has been implemented in communities around the globe, the research and evaluation effort of same represents the first such impact assessment effort.


Milgrom Funded Research Project (Launched: Nov. 2013, On-going) "Development of a Measure to Assess Teacher Perceptions of Self-Student Differences." 
Teachers’ perceptions of difference may have implications for students’ perceptions of themselves. For students, the information garnered about the self as inferred from “the other,” may result in a particular pattern of academic persistence and engagement (or its absence). Thus, the perceptions and inferences of students and teachers potentially have implications for interactions that impact the behaviors, beliefs and attitudes of students and teachers. This teacher focused relational project commenced in November 2013 and was designed to develop a measure for assessing self-student differences (i.e., thus, it is a strategy for determining relational inferred beliefs of teachers about their students). The research implementation steps include teacher survey data collection, teacher interviews, instrument development, and the measure’s administration to an independent cohort of teachers. Next steps include raising funds to conduct a construct validation study.


Samaritan Center – Detroit, MI (On-going) 
Focused on the supports provided to highly vulnerable Detroit residents, the collaborative project represents a partnership with a Washington University in St. Louis colleague (urban planning and policy), Dr. Carol Camp Yeakey. We are examining the impact of wrap-a-round services provided to a blighted community of Detroit (East Detroit) by the Samaritan Center (i.e., a constituent project of Holy Cross Children’s Services, HCCS).  I have provided consultative services and/or participated as a Research Advisory Committee member to HCCS for over a decade. Given the Promise Neighborhoods National Initiative and national and international interest in same, the project provides an analysis of a particular and parallel initiative which includes wrap-a-round services organized as a one-site facility: The Samaritan Center. As a team, Dr. Yeakey and I are working on a set of volumes which analyzes the character of resources afforded (and their on-site delivery). Framed as an organized set of services, the history of the Samaritan initiative, and its various relationships both at the neighborhood and city-wide levels, are considered an analyzed. The Samaritan Center is viewed as representing a highly successful and innovative strategy for providing services to a long-term under-serviced low resource community of Detroit (i.e., the east side of Detroit, MI).

Ongoing analysis of a previously collected NIMH/NSF and multiple Foundation supported data set (On-going) 

Data statistician Dr. Lauren Rich (Chapin Hall) and I continue to analyze data on urban youths’ resiliency and coping processes. We have analyzed sets of ego resiliency focused data and, in addition to making presentations, plan several research papers. Utilizing multiple publication formats, data preparations are underway for submission as collaborative efforts with several advanced doctoral students, junior colleagues and (CHD) post-docs. The several research products will be submitted during the upcoming summer and academic year.