The 180 Podcast: Margaret Beale Spencer (Part 2)

Margaret Beale Spencer: Unstacking The Deck — A Call for Candid Self-Interrogation About Identity and Racism (Part 2)

In this episode, we continue our conversation with Margaret Beale Spencer, the Marshall Field IV Professor of Urban Education at the University of Chicago.

In Part 1, Prof. Spencer explained — in powerful narrative — her own history and how her personal path led to the topics central to her life’s work: identity, resiliency and competency building within a racially, ethnically and economically diverse society.

Today, we dive deeper into Dr. Spencer’s scientific research on human development and ask her for guidance to address the elephant in many rooms today: racism. As kids, faculty, and staff have come back together in their respective school communities they don’t necessarily share a sense of urgency about righting — or even addressing — historical wrongs against Black people. Where is the most important place to start?

Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: What is it? How does the stool, the four-part stool, work particularly around with parents, educators, healthcare workers, and even police? Tell me about the PVEST Model.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Sure. PVEST stands for Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory. Yes, it’s a mouthful.

Chris Riback: Well, I’m grateful that you renamed it PVEST then.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Yes. My students over the years, it was PVEST for them. I wanted to keep the word term phenomenological, phenomenology in the title because it comes out of philosophy. Of course, it’s a philosophical term. It simply refers to the various ways that we perceive that we take in meaning that we come to understand.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I, for me, as humans, that is key from day one at birth. We take in information. We are inferring about the other. We are inferring and experiencing context. For me, phenomenology is also virtually synonymous with our humanity with perceiving, with taking in information, but what’s really key here as well is what you do with the information that you take in, that how you experience, if you will, that information relative to what you do in terms of normal human challenge and given what you do, how that becomes a regularized way of being called an identity, And that’s all PVEST is saying.

Margaret Beale Spencer: It’s a Phenomenological Variant Of Ecological Systems Theory meaning that it’s simply a theory that tries to get us to understand what this perceptual process is about in terms of taking in information which allows you to make sense of your ecology or your context, be it first the context of a mother with her infant or a family with a child or a community with its children or school administrators and teachers within students that’s responsible for.

Margaret Beale Spencer: How you’re take in information and as you’re navigating space and engaging your various tasks, what you do when something comes up that’s a conflict that you have to deal with. Our humanity is about conflict, normal tasks. It causes conflicts, but in terms of what you do and response, that has to do with your level of vulnerability, which is also part of our humanity, Chris.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Everybody has some level of vulnerability, as I shared before. It’s the balance or it’s the imbalance between supports and privileges available versus the risks and the challenges that one is having or one is burdened by.

Margaret Beale Spencer: You always have both. The dilemma in this country in particular is that there has never been a balance for people of color. There’s always been an imbalance. It’s called structured inequality. For me, it’s really important because very often, there are people who don’t want to see themselves in whites in particular as vulnerable. They want to view vulnerability and a status of risk as equivalent, as synonymous when they are not.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Our humanity dictates some level of vulnerability. We are experiencing that right now with COVID-19. No matter what the messages out of Washington, we know walking around the street no matter your race, ethnicity, color or class without a mask exposed that it increases your vulnerability. It increases your possibility of coming down with the disease.

Margaret Beale Spencer: That’s for everyone. No one is exempt from that unless you have an immune system that we’ve not heard about yet that makes you special. You see what I’m saying, that’s part of our humanity, but if you already have had a history, generational history of structured inequality, that means that we started out in February with a higher level of vulnerability because of hundreds of years of structured inequality.

Margaret Beale Spencer: There are some people who could have left the city for their summer home without too many other people around, that lowers your vulnerability right? Whereas other people who are stuck in a tenement building with 100 people in a 10-floor building, that’s a very different level of vulnerability.

Margaret Beale Spencer: The disease is hitting all of us humans in the same way, but some humans are more vulnerable because of hundreds of years of structured inequality. That’s why the stacks look the way they do. That’s what we have to deal with that right now. It was not just the individuals bringing slave ships over here in the middle passage with the, in essence, millions of deaths, but what happens now when we contribute to structured inequality thus making human vulnerability different.

Margaret Beale Spencer: So when something like COVID-19 hits, it hits differentially. Therefore, people are hit groups are hit with a different impact. That’s what I mean by humanity, i.e. we’re all vulnerable. But structured inequality makes the experience of vulnerability different.

Margaret Beale Spencer: We don’t do research in that way because we don’t want to deal with the fact that for me, as far as I’m concerned, part of the risk factor of vulnerability for some whites really has to do with not acknowledging that knapsack of privilege.

Margaret Beale Spencer: If we don’t talk about the privilege of some and only talk about the risk conditions of challenges for others, well of course you’re going to find significant differences, but if the policies that are generated don’t deal with the fundamental issue of structured inequality, that fallacy of some people being better than others remains part of our science, remains part of the policies which means that the policies are asking the wrong questions.

Margaret Beale Spencer: The policies have to address the problem of structured inequality that makes human vulnerability levels different to begin with. That’s what we’re not talking about.

Chris Riback: The policies are asking the wrong questions in your words. In listening to you, I would maybe add that the policies might not be asking the uncomfortable questions, the challenging questions. Therefore, we end up without ultimate changed policies and resolutions and answers that they can start to address some of the many things that you’re talking about.

Chris Riback: In the context of what you are discussing, in the context of humanity and vulnerability and structured inequality, what is resiliency? Does it connect with identity and competence? Can children fully form one without the others?

Margaret Beale Spencer: Resiliency for me, as I define it, is getting good outcomes irrespective of significant challenge. The significant challenge part is offset by supports that sometimes researchers don’t recognize. For me having a mother who really enjoyed reading and took traditions from her own family even though truncated her situation was in terms of losing both her parents at 13, but there were traditions of that family that she continued with her own family.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Even though we were from modest means, there were traditions. There were stories. There were ways of thinking and being that functioned as protective factors for us. So yes, there are risks, but then, there are protective factors that are important as well. Let me give you an example.

Chris Riback: Please.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I’ve always tried to do applied research. I do basic science and then, I use those insights and apply them in settings in order to not take advantage of being the scientist, but use the science to improve the outcomes and processes for everyone.

Margaret Beale Spencer: In the case of youngsters who are from, say, low resource families, we did a large study in two states with a very large sample of children. These were adolescents who basically came from low resource families. How did we know they were low resource? Because very often, our social scientists define low resource at the school level.

Margaret Beale Spencer: We ask students to bring to school documentation that their families met certain financial criteria. If the kids did not bring the paperwork back, we went to homes in the evening with portable Xerox machines in order to document that they, in fact, met the criteria for economic disadvantage.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Once we got the information, we looked at those kids by grades. The children who were already A,B students, we told them, “Because you’re A,B students and you come from this particular family type, we’re going to give you a monthly stipend. As long as you keep your A,B grades, we’ll keep giving you a monthly stipend. Just keep doing well.”

Margaret Beale Spencer: The kids who were C,D students, we told them, “You’re not doing well in school. We know you can do better. We’re going to give you a monthly…” We gave them a stipend however every two weeks. We felt that would be more incentivizing for them because they were at a different level of vulnerability. They were already getting poor grades.

Margaret Beale Spencer: We gave them stipends every two weeks, but they had to come to after-school programming. What we wanted to do was to meet their economic needs i.e. giving them a monetary stipend, but we also needed to help them develop a new identity. What we did was to train these kids to be health providers.

Margaret Beale Spencer: We gave them twice-monthly stipends to come to after-school programming to see the impact on their school engagement, to see if we can get them to maintain and ideally to improve their performance.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I will tell you, it made a difference. Many of the kids, in fact, in a couple of cases, I would say a few cases, we found that kids were coming to the after-school programming to become health educators, but they weren’t going to school. We had to remind them, “No, no, no. This is a package. This is after-school. You must go to school.”

Margaret Beale Spencer: We talked to parents who said that these youngsters were now changing family health habits, that they were in doing things to acquire a new identity because we were calling them health educators, and we were training them to be health educators.

Margaret Beale Spencer: The idea was to train them in an area that was a little different from what they were getting every day in school, but to generally give them an identity that would have them feel as if more strongly that they could do this. They did. We had kids who have been C,D students who ended up few years later graduating and going to four-year colleges.

Margaret Beale Spencer: We knew that the monetary incentive was making a difference. The point here, Chris, is that economic, if you will, inequality and its impact on families was having an impact on adolescents, well, then give them what they need to feel good. Adolescents, no matter how much money your parents earn, they always need money. They always need things. That’s a part of being an adolescent.

Chris Riback: Need versus want. We can have a whole other conversation on that, but yes, I take your point.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Yes. Okay. If kids are still adolescents and they still have these needs, how can we address their needs, but also get the outcomes that we know will guarantee their futures?

Margaret Beale Spencer: My point here is that, too often, we don’t understand the needs and respond to those needs. We simply infer something about the group. We don’t infer anything about the strengths that can be capitalized on. My point here is that for the kids who are doing well, those are my resilient kids, I told them to A,B kids, “You’re doing well. Pat them on the back with a monthly check. Keep doing well.”

Margaret Beale Spencer: The kids who are not doing well, we simply have to give them more. That’s the point of human vulnerability. If you want to change the imbalance of vulnerability that is too many risk and challenges and not enough supports, then through policy and practice, you give them more supports that make sense to decrease their vulnerability and to increase the probability of resilience. That’s how you handle that.

Margaret Beale Spencer: But you have to use supports that make sense, not supports that you think matter because you’re the expert on the outside. But phenomenal logically from their own perceptions and experience, get a sense of what individuals need. That’s not what policy does all the time. It’s a look from the outside as opposed to perceptions given experience in varying contexts from the inside.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I would say in terms of, as a professional, that’s a major drawback. If you want good outcomes in the face of challenge, you have to understand from the individual’s perspective what the needs are. What Black Lives Matter is telling us right now, that structured inequality based upon race in particular has to stop. When Amy Cooper, because she has her dog off a leash in Central Park in a birding area thinks it’s her right to then call the police if someone calls her out. Because she is white, she feels she can do that, that can’t happen anymore.

Margaret Beale Spencer: The execution of a black man George Floyd while he’s begging for his life because he doesn’t deserve the treatment, no one does, and to be executed publicly like that, that can’t go on. People are saying from the inside, “These things need to stop.” There must be an interrogation of everyone’s contribution to this stable system of structured inequality based upon race, and also not acknowledging the problem of privilege.

Margaret Beale Spencer: The problem of privilege based upon race that is literally 400 years old, it has to stop. It has to be interrogated, and people need to become comfortable with the uncomfortableness of looking at one’s self in the mirror and saying it, “In one way or the other, I’m a part of this, and I need to interrogate. I need to self. I need to move in a different direction and claim my full humanity,” which is the fact that it’s shared with others who look different on the outside, but we all share our humanity under the skin.

Margaret Beale Spencer: That’s a big dose of a change that’s needed in this country. How I remain optimistic is that I look at the children. I look at the young people. I believe we can do better. I believe that whiteness does not in essence mean pure unadulterated evil for some people. I think it’s simply missed opportunities to claim full humanity and to get support to deal with the uncomfortableness, but unrealizing the uncomfortableness and getting help with it, I think, is important because that experience, I think, can be life-changing.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I think the downside of privilege for me is that people don’t learn to struggle with uncomfortableness. Privilege means then that life for some people is full of what I call consonants. It’s an evenness. You don’t have to deal with these barriers 24/7. But then when that happens, you don’t learn how to struggle with challenge that’s a downside of privilege.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I think right now given that COVID-19 has all of us indoors and struggling with loneliness, et cetera, all kinds of frailties, I just think that being privileged does not help with that because I think people have had generations of having to cope with adversity, you’ve developed those muscles. That’s a good thing, but that’s because dissonance makes you struggle and makes you find solutions, but the downside of privilege is that you don’t have adaptive coping methods.

Margaret Beale Spencer: What you develop is a sense of self that is normally, if you will, always on the positive side as opposed to realizing that conditions were structured to guarantee that you’re always on the positive side of this balance. It becomes, I think, very problematic during periods like this when all humans are struggling with COVID-19.

Chris Riback: Yes. The ability to have and show and build on resiliency when one hasn’t had the benefit of struggling with uncomfortableness to borrow your phrase, there has to be a big gap there. What a powerful phrase, the interrogation of every one of our contributions, the interrogation of everyone’s contributions. That is the interrogation that likely needs to occur.

Chris Riback: Professor Spencer, I should take advantage of the conversation with you and draw upon your one-time history as a would-be pharmacist to ask you for a prescription. Lots of kids and faculty and staff around the country may be coming back together in schools with a different sense of urgency about some of the things that you are talking about, about righting wrongs.

Chris Riback: Some school leaders are already falling on their swords and apologizing and forming task forces and forms for their communities on race and the list goes on. Is there advice? Is there a prescription that you might give to schools, to teachers to administrators, even to parents, to consider what school should do understanding, of course, that each school faces a context that is different?

Margaret Beale Spencer: I think there’s a need for conversations, very candid conversations both in schools and also at home. I really feel that’s baseline. It has to start there. I think that’s the best I can say that it has to start there. I think we also have to have a conversation about reparations as well. I think there’s such extreme inequality in terms of resource accessibility in this country.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Reparations must be a part of that process, on how do we access resources to right some of the wrongs that have been perpetrated on communities of color in this country over the last 400 years. It’s going to cost. It’s going to cost psychologically. It’s going to cost economically. It is a good thing because the cost is going to accrue uncomfortableness.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Again, it’s not real. It’s not real for too many people unless they feel that uncomfortableness. I just think that there’s an opportunity to have discussions about uncomfortableness and how it’s been perpetrated on certain communities over 400 years, and how it needs to be actively righted in terms of the access of resources and opportunity for everyone.

Margaret Beale Spencer: The thing about this is that it’s not easy, but there’s opportunity. When you consider white women in particular, white women know what it means to be discriminated against as a function in that case of gender. At the same time, white women have the opportunity to talk about the pain and the hurt that comes from discrimination.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Women have two big X chromosomes. Men have one X and one Y, but what it means just for that one difference, what it means for them in terms of the hurt. Therefore, they can communicate even more so, the hurt that comes from just being mistreated as a function of difference of skin color only.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I think dealing with that in terms of showing and sharing how that is hurt, I think, that’s really important, and it’s a step. I think for me, white women in particular have an opportunity to share that being discriminated against about something as arbitrary as gender, if you exacerbate that in a race, ethnicity, a place of origin, then I think some communication of that uncomfortableness should come through, and should communicate then the importance of taking a stand when it comes to structured inequality based upon these other categories of difference as well.

Margaret Beale Spencer: But I think there is an opportunity right within the family, right within the home. My seven-year-old granddaughter, we read a book. There’s clear discrimination based upon gender. She’s a little feminist, I guess, but she’s real clear. “That doesn’t make any sense.” Certainly, when it comes to race ethnicity, she’ll say things like, “Why does anyone think someone would wish to work for nothing when it’s not their idea to do that?”

Margaret Beale Spencer: She is very articulate and understanding that. Why big people don’t understand that she’s, in essence, very confused by that proclivity. All I’m saying is that within homes, we just need to tell the truth. I think it’s doable because I think it means that we can own and celebrate the shared humanity. We can all critique those systems that guarantee inequality and be more willing to pay the price in terms of reparations for righting centuries of misdoing.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I believe that we can do this because I believe most people are fairly rational, that narcissistic pathology or pathological narcissism may be a problem for some, but I think the majority of people are on a continuum that’s a lot less extreme than pathological narcissism.

Margaret Beale Spencer: I think we have the capacity to have empathy for to understand the status of the other. Like I said, in terms of white communities, white women in particular have that opportunity. It is an opportunity.

Chris Riback: In doing research for this conversation on one of the sites about you, the National Academy Of Education, your bio says that your life experiences “continue to inform and guarantee insights about human vulnerability which bridge to resiliency options no matter one’s placement on the planet.” No matter one’s placement on the planet.

Chris Riback: Now, when I read it, I felt like that was just one of the most inspiring statements I’d ever read. After this conversation. Now, I understand it even better. Thank you. Thank you for your time. Thank you for the conversation and the work that you have and continue to do.

Margaret Beale Spencer: Thank you, Chris. Again, I very much appreciated the opportunity and hope the perspective shared might be helpful to others because I do believe we can do this. We can make this a much better world. Thank you.

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement. www.turnaroundusa.org

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