Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus

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

Margaret Beale Spencer, Charles L. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Comparative Human Development and the College
Marshall Field IV Professor Emeritus of Urban Education and Life Course Development
Affiliate Faculty Member in the Committee on Education,
Affiliate Faculty Member in the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture


I earned my PhD from the Committee on Human Development (currently the Department of Comparative Human Development) in the Child and Developmental Psychology Program. Before returning to Chicago, I was the endowed Board of Overseers Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies of Human Development (ISHD) program and faculty member in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. At UPenn, I was Director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Health Achievement Neighborhoods Growth and Ethnic Studies (CHANGES) and also guided as its inaugural director, the W. E. B. Du Bois Collective Research Institute. Both appointments continue to frame my developmental scholarship and application of phenomenological variant of ecological systems theory (PVEST). It is a systems theory and, most important, is inclusive of all human experience and provides an identity-focused cultural ecological perspective. I evolved the theory over a decade because non-problematizing perspectives about people of color were generally unavailable.  Accordingly, P-VEST affords an authentic representation of human development processes both for Whites and People of Color as lives evolve in an ethnically, racially and economically diverse world. The conceptual framework addresses resiliency, identity, and competence formation processes for diverse humans—particularly youth—both in the United States and abroad. 

This perspective informs my current focus: a multi-pronged research and programming agenda called the Urban Resiliency Initiative (URI). Linked theory-focused and applied collaborations occur in challenging contexts. Processes and outcomes have significant implications for understanding not just the "what" of life course human development but the "why" of particular developmental and social trajectories and, thus, the necessary “how” of effective interventions and intended systems of support. Embracing these ideas, URI aims to promote youth well-being and community resiliency by respecting and acknowledging the humanity and unavoidable vulnerability of all. URI operates two principal lanes of impact, which are designed to enhance students’ STEM learning while, in parallel, fostering improved relationships with teachers and community members with the ultimate aim of unleashing resiliency in urban communities.

The first “Lane” highlights a theory driven and youth learning promotion focused intervention. Using youths’ arts relevant interests, implemented academic intervention programming leverages youth music and technology interests to scaffold STEM learning opportunities (i.e., uses students’ attraction to electronic sound and music to leverage Science, Technology, Engineering and Math [STEM] learning). In collaboration with partners, we have developed a middle-school STEM curriculum that links economic (e.g., electronic music lab professional skill-building), academic (STEM instruction), and relationship-building experiences (opportunities for prolonged and repeated positive, interactions and social justice identities) between and among youth and adults. The curriculum is aligned with (a) Core Curriculum Standards in math and literacy, (b) Next Generation Science Standards, and (c) National Core Arts Standards. Our inquiry-based lessons—from an arts scaffolding strategy—are designed to exploit youths’ interest and proficiency in DJing and turntablism and thus to pique and/or sustain STEM academic interest, social justice consciousness and commitments.

The second “Lane” is adult or professional level focused with the aim to maximize the adult supports intended for youths’ everyday competence and human resiliency. To that end, as the Second Lane of Impact for adults who serve as the context for youth development, we have developed solutions oriented assessment tools that can (a) uncover maladaptive professional orientations which inhibit the cultivation of resiliency, and (b) identify practical ways to correct these behaviors. Currently, we are designing tools like this for use with teachers, police officers, and health professionals.


I currently teach graduate and undergraduate courses on Adolescent Development. Previously I have also taught courses on Race, Ethnicity and Resiliency. I am also currently developing a seminar focused on the applications of PVEST.

Selected Publications


Spencer, M.B. & Dowd, N.E. (Expected 2021/2022). Radical Brown: Keeping the Promise to America’s Children. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press. Full Citation Pending.

Spencer, M. B., Lodato, B. N., Spencer, C., Rich, L., Graziul, C., & English-Clarke, T. (2019). Chapter Four – Innovating resilience promotion: Integrating cultural practices, social ecologies and development-sensitive conceptual strategies for advancing child wellbeing. In D. A. Henry, E. Votruba-Drzal, & P. Miller (Eds.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior (Vol. 57, pp. 101–148). JAI.

Harris, J.A., Spencer, M.B. Kruger, A.C., & Irving, M.A., (2019). An Examination and Interrogation of African American Males’ Racial Identity, Prosocial Behaviors and Aggression, Research in Human Development, 16:1, 76-91, DOI:10.1080/15427609.2018.1556068

Rious, J.B., Cunningham, M. & Spencer, M.B. (2019). Rethinking the Notion of “Hostility” in African American Parenting Styles, Research in Human Development, 16:1, 35-50, DOI: 10.1080/15427609.2018.1541377

Spencer M.B., Developmental and Intersectional Insights About Diverse Children's Identity, 71(1) Fla. L. Rev. F. 12 (2019).

Spencer, M. B. (2018). Self. In Bornstein, M. H. (Ed.) The SAGE Encyclopedia of Lifespan Human Development. (pp. 1917-1920). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Spencer, M.B. (2017). Privilege and Critical Race Perspectives’ Intersectional Contributions to a Systems Theory of Human Development. In. Budwig, N. Turiel, E., & Zelazo, P. (Eds.) New Perspectives on Human Development, (pp. 258-286). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, M.B. & Hope, E. (2017). Civic Engagement as an Adaptive Coping Response to Conditions of Inequality: An Application of Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (PVEST). In N. Cabrera & Leyendecker, B. (Eds.) Handbook on Positive Development of Minority Children and Youth (pp. 421-434). New York: Springer.

McGee, E.O. & Spencer, M.B. (2015). Black Parents as Advocates, Motivators, and Teachers of Mathematics. The Journal of Negro Education, 84(3), 473–490.

Spencer, M. B. (2008). Phenomenology and ecological systems theory: Development of diverse groups. In W. Damon and R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Child and adolescent development: An advanced course (pp. 696-735). New York: Wiley Publishers.

Spencer, M. B. (2006). Phenomenology and ecological systems theory: Development of diverse groups. In R. M. Lerner & W. Damon (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology, vol. 1: Theoretical models of human development, 6th ed. (pp. 829-893). New York: Wiley Publishers.

Spencer, M. B., Harpalani, V., Cassidy, E., Jacobs, C., Donde, S., Goss, T. N., Muñoz-Miller, M. M., Charles, N., & Wilson, S. (2006). Understanding vulnerability and resilience from a normative development perspective: Implications for racially and ethnically diverse youth. In D. Cicchetti & D. J. Cohen (Eds.) Handbook of developmental psychopathology, vol. 1: Theory and method, 2nd ed. (pp. 627-672). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishers.

Spencer, M. B. (2005). Crafting identities and accessing opportunities post-Brown. American Psychologist, 60(8), 821-830.

Swanson, D., Cunningham, M., Spencer, M. B., (2005) Black males’ structural conditions, achievement patterns, normative needs, and “opportunities.” In O. Fashola (Ed.), Educating African American males: voices from the field (pp. 229-254), Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, CA. (Reprinted from Urban Education Journal, 38(5), 608-633, 2003).

Spencer, M. B., Noll, E., & Cassidy, E. (2005). Monetary incentives in support of academic achievement: results of a randomized field trial involving high-achieving, low-resource, ethnically diverse urban adolescents. Evaluation Research, 29(3), 199-222.

Spencer, M. B., Cross, W. E., Harpalani, V., & Goss, T. N. (2003). Historical and developmental perspectives on Black academic achievement: Debunking the “acting White” myth and posing new directions for research. In C. C. Yeakey & R. D. Henderson (Eds.), Surmounting all odds: Education, opportunity and society in the new millennium (pp. 273-304). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishers.

Swanson, D., Cunningham, M., Spencer, M. B., (2003). Black males’ structural conditions, achievement patterns, normative needs, and “opportunities.” Urban Education Journal, 38(5), 608-633.

Spencer, M. B., Noll, E., & Stoltzfus, J., & Harpalani, V. (2001). Identity and school adjustment: Revisiting the “acting White” assumption. Educational Psychologist, 36(1), 21-30.

Connell, J. P., Spencer, M. B., & Aber, J. L. (1994). Educational risk and resilience in African-American youth: Context, self, action and outcomes in school. Child Development, 65, 493-506.


Swanson, D. P., Edwards, M. & M. B. Spencer (2010). (Eds.) Adolescence: Development During a Global Era. Waltham, MA: Academic Press.

Allen, W.R., Spencer, M. B., and O’Connor, C. (2002). African American education: Race community, inequality and achievement – A tribute to Edgar G. Epps. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science.

Spencer, M. B., Brookins, G.K., & Allen, W.R. (Eds) (1985). Beginnings: Social and affective development of Black children. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Selected Honors

2020 Elected Fellow American Association for the Advancement of Science (February 15th, 2020), Seattle, CA.

2019 Elected Membership: American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Cambridge, MA)

2018 American Psychological Association Lifetime Achievement Award (August 9-12 2018), San Francisco, CA.

2018 American Psychological Association Division 7 (Developmental Science) Urie Bronfenbrenner Award for Distinguished Contributions to Developmental Science (August 9-12 2018), San Francisco, CA.

2018 Convocation Speaker, Social Science Division University of Chicago (June 2018)

2015 Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Northwestern University (June 19, 2015)

2015 Convocation Speaker, Grad School of Education, Northwestern University (June 2, 2015)

2011 Society for Research in Child Development Award for Distinguished Contributions to Cultural and Ecological Research

2009 Membership Election, National Academy of Education, May 2009

2008 Named an Inaugural Fellow of the American Educational Research Association (AERA)

2007 AERA Invited Presenter of the Fourth Annual Brown Lecture in Education Research, American Educational Research Association (AERA), October 18, 2007.

2006 Alphonse Fletcher, Sr., Fellowship (for scholarly and artistic works devoted to the legacy of 1954 Brown v. Board of Education.)

2005 Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest: Senior Career Award, American Psychological Association (APA), August 2005.