The Roberta Grodberg Simmons Prize Lecture


Keeping America's Promise to our Youth: Revisiting Brown vs. Board

Still far from its mandate, May 17th marks the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which famously stands for the principle of equality of all. Navigating diverse contexts in pursuit of identity relevant developmental tasks, adolescents are particularly sensitive to the continuing contradiction between the embrace of equality and the reality of inequality. A recent innovative interrogation of  Brown argues that it stands for a mandate for comprehensive equality grounded in shared, common, equal humanity. The argument provides an innovative framing and positionality that comprehensive equality recognizes shared vulnerability. All humans are vulnerable and are impacted by assets and supports as well as risks and challenges. Youth’s status of vulnerability (high or low) is especially relevant to everyday encounters with law enforcement officers. Varied perceptions of and encounters with law enforcement officers have implications for socio-emotional functioning and everyday thriving. The presentation presents adolescent views of policing and as well, police officers’ perceptions about culturally diverse adolescents. As context relevant and culturally sensitive insights for the future, the analysis provides explanations for the shortcomings of Brown as policy and suggests ameliorations moving forward.

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, The University of Chicago 

Who was Roberta Grodberg Simmons? Click here to learn more.

Margaret Beale Spencer is the Charles L. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Department of Comparative Human Development at the University of Chicago. She received her PhD from the Committee on Human Development at the University of Chicago.  Before returning to Chicago, she was the endowed Board of Overseers Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Studies of Human Development Program (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, and ecological perspective. It serves as the foundation for her gender, culture and context acknowledging, developmental, race- and ethnicity-sensitive program of research; it represents life course interests but particularly an adolescent focus. The conceptual framework addresses resiliency, identity, and competence formation processes for diverse humans—particularly youth—both in the United States and abroad.  Recently, she completed a book on the Brown v. Board decision with her co-author Dr. Nancy Dowd (University of Florida Law School).  It is scheduled to be published later in 2024 by Harvard Education Press.  

At the University of Chicago, Dr. Spencer launched the Urban Resilience Initiative (URI) 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.  Central to this initiative is a National Institute of Health (NIH) supported project called “Primed to (re)act: Can changes in procedural language prevent adverse events between police and minority male youth?”  This project aims to improve interactions between Male Minority Youth (MMY) and Law Enforcement Officers (LEO).  The knowledge gained will help improve our understanding of how male youth, particularly MMY, perceive procedural language as contributing to LEO behavior. This understanding provides insight into circumstances where youth may react in unexpected ways to LEOs based on these perceptions.  Related, the knowledge produced by this study will be crucial for producing future empirically grounded, language-based interventions capable of successfully realizing the implied benefits of changes in procedural language for the quality of youth-police interactions, especially those involving MMY. 

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.  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 guardian ad litem in the Family Court of Atlanta GA.  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. 

Dr. Spencer is an elected member of the National Academy of Education, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has held Board Membership as well as voted fellow status in several Divisions of the American Psychological Association. Recently, she received the Ernest L. Boyer Award from the New American Colleges and Universities (NACU).  She has also received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters Degree from Northwestern University, an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters Degree from the Erikson Institute, 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.