Margaret Beale-Spencer

Refuting Stereotypes - Psychologist Devotes Career to Human Development and Social Justice

When psychologist Margaret Beale Spencer, PhD’76, gave birth to her first daughter Tirzah, she also unleased a passion to rewrite the narrative of children of color in textbooks.

“I knew she was the most wonderful, beautiful child in the whole world and, of course, she was brilliant, but she wasn’t in any of my textbooks except under categories of deficits, problems, or deviance,” Spencer says. “I knew the texts were wrong, and my job was to research and publish authentic developmental science inclusive of children of color.”

Spencer, the University of Chicago Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education in Comparative Human Development and Chair of the Department of Comparative Human Development, has dedicated her career to shifting the perspective on human development to one that embraces an inclusive point of view.

She began that journey early on when as a master’s degree student at the University of Kansas, she focused her thesis on negating early studies by psychologists who inferred that children’s negative characterization of all things dark, including dark people, suggested self-hatred if they were black. From her experimental study of black and white preschool children, Spencer concluded that early racial beliefs and preferences were nothing more than learned behaviors.  

A recent winner of a University of Chicago Diversity Leadership Award for fostering diversity and advancing social justice and equality, Spencer’s career spans more than three decades and consists of roughly 125 publications.

After completing her PhD at Chicago, she became one of the first African American women appointed to a tenure-track position at Emory University, and later joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania before returning to Chicago.

In addition to changing textbooks, Spencer’s widely cited Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory, or P-VEST, has served as the bedrock of her gendered and race-ethnicity focused research, which addresses resiliency, identity, and competence formation processes, and is used both in the United States and abroad.

“From a human vulnerability resiliency perspective, P-VEST was synthesized after a decade of conducting research, collaborating on applications, and systematically determining some of the sources of good outcomes independent of risk level,” says Spencer. Resiliency, particularly in urban communities, is about identifying, accessing, and maximizing positive experiences while confronted with significant challenge.

Not generally acknowledged in texts is a significant variability in how people perceive and cope with stress and challenges. “Highly problematic is an apparent reluctance to unpack and fully understand the complexity of both risk and protective factor experiences,” says Spencer. “P-VEST assists in making less complicated some of those dynamic human processes.”

Even when it comes to her own life, P-VEST and resiliency, in particular, have played a major role in helping her reach her goals. As an undergraduate student majoring in pharmacy, Spencer was one of only five women in a large cohort and the only women of color. “I realized in the male-dominated college that social factors like gender and race mattered a lot,” she says.

That insight prompted career exploration from her undergraduate biological science specialty to the social sciences. Following the completion of two undergraduate courses, Spencer’s instructor, Dr. Grace Heider, suggested that she attend graduate school on a full doctoral fellowship.

“I really kind of chuckled and said, ‘You don’t know who I am. This is only my second psychology class,’” said Spencer at the time. “And she said, ‘Trust me, I know these things and I’ve never been wrong.’”

So Spencer accepted the offer from the psychology department at the University of Kansas, which launched her entry into psychology.  Spencer noted that it was Heider, as well as Heider’s husband, the reputable Austrian-born social psychologist Dr. Fritz Heider, and Spencer’s thesis chair, Dr. Frances Degen Horowitz, who were all critical in helping to shape her career. “Collectively, they changed my life and provided an unimagined career path,” Spencer says. “I was incredibly fortunate to have this type of exposure in the field.”

Having strong mentors, however, did not end at the University of Kansas. After enrolling in the University of Chicago PhD program, Spencer met Dr. Edgar G. Epps, who became her mentor and dissertation advisor. “Epps, who was a sociologist in the Department of Education, was an incredible critical thinker and source of support,” says Spencer.

For Spencer, the University of Chicago has also been integral in helping her reach her research aspirations. “When I was here as a student for five years and then later as a faculty member, I came back because the University’s interdisciplinary way of thinking is absolutely necessary for appreciating the diversity of humanity,” she says. “I have never felt intellectually at home at any other place.”

Spencer hopes her research and understanding of human development helps teachers in classrooms as well as service-oriented providers and policy makers. “I view my life as a gift and one of responsibility, and I try to return what I’ve been given,” Spencer says. “I want to produce a constituency of academic researchers and integrity in practitioners and teachers who have inclusive views of our humanity. If I’ve contributed to that, then I’ll feel as if I’ve done okay.”

- By Tanya R. Cochran