Margaret Beale Spencer: Looking at Social Justice Issues Through a Scientific Lens

Margaret Beale Spencer

Margaret Beale Spencer, a professor of urban education at the University of Chicago, began her lecture Oct. 20 by proposing suggestions to solve the issue of the treatment of youths as invisible by both their peers and teachers.

Spencer’s lecture, “Conceptual Benefits of a Human Vulnerability/Resiliency Approach to Youth Development and Learning: Challenges and Opportunities,” was part of Boston College’s Symposia Series sponsored by the Lynch School of Education.

As a comparative human development psychologist, Spencer has devoted much of her work to the development of the Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (PVEST). She explained that PVEST serves as a framework to examine strength and resiliency, especially during the process of identity formation in adolescents. PVEST also addresses the social, historical, and cultural contexts in which youths develop as well as the perceptions and self-evaluations that people use to form their identities.

At the beginning of her talk, Spencer said that PVEST allows people to look at world conflicts through an identity-focused cultural ecological perspective. In other words, it’s a way to look at social justice issues through a scientific lens.

Spencer explained her definition of vulnerability, which she sees as a balanced or imbalanced state between risk and different protective factors.

Children with high risk factors and low protection factors are highly vulnerable. She gave the example of a special-needs student. On the other hand, people that have both high risk factors and high protection factors have a low vulnerability and high resiliency.

“We too often do our science looking at vulnerability and coping mechanisms of young children,” Spencer said. “We just look at individuals who are at a high risk compared to those with a lot of protection and support, so we assume we know how to help. This tradition has not gotten us as far as we need to go.”


“I hope that today’s comments provide a way of thinking to use science as a way to maximize social justice,” Spencer said.

Margaret Beale Spencer, a professor of urban education at the University of Chicago


She then broke up her theory of identity formation of young children into several parts by showing her audience a series of diagrams.

The first diagram showed a person’s net vulnerability level, which is the history of his or her prior experiences and coping outcomes. Next was one’s net stress engagement, an actual experience that challenges an individual’s well-being and coping methods employed to resolve dissonance-producing situations. The last parts show a person’s emergent identity where coping strategies are repeated, become stable, and combine with self-evaluation to form an identity. Finally, one reaches the the life-stage, where a person possesses specific coping outcomes, so his or her identity affects future behavior and outcomes like self-esteem, achievement, and health.

Spencer said that for people who are interested in social change, these individual parts of the model are important, for people must interfere between these levels of identity formation in order to help children overcome challenges they may face.

One example of this kind of intervention was Spencer’s project to improve the lives of adolescents with special needs who were at high risk and highly vulnerable in their high school. Her project was a collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia school system, and she worked to decrease the risk and stressors of being in a school where special-needs students’ statuses were undermined. Both schools came up with a solution to place special-needs students in classes at the University of Pennsylvania instead of their regular high schools to decrease peer feedback that increased the stress of these students every day.

Spencer explained that her intervention was overall a success, because the project gave special-needs students a stronger academic identity, and, as a result, their graduation rate quadrupled.

At the conclusion of her speech, she praised BC’s commitment to resolving social justice issues. Spencer noted that most schools are not motivated to resolve complex issues like the well-being of special- needs students, immigrant youth as they come of age, and the coping response of transgender youth as they manage the traditional structure of gender expectations.

“Because BC is a school that is run with a social justice purpose, students are being trained to think about these issues in a way that is respectful,” she said. “It’s not the way most schools are because generally, it is mostly about ‘me’ as opposed to ‘we.’”

Spencer also expressed her hope that her speech would inspire students to look at social and race issues from a different perspective.

“I hope that today’s comments provide a way of thinking to use science as a way to maximize social justice,” Spencer said.

Featured Image by Savanna Kiefer / Heights Editor