Collaborating with communities: Vivian Gadsden works to help children and families

The educational and social inequities that have come to the forefront in our current era have been top of mind for Penn GSE’s Vivian Gadsden for decades. Gadsden, the William T. Carter Professor of Child Development and Education, has spent her career working with young children and families affected by severe circumstances, including poverty, homelessness, and incarceration, that put the academic and social well-being of youth at the greatest risk.

Vivian Gadsden
Penn GSE’s Vivian Gadsden. (Image: Ryan Collerd)

Rooted in Philadelphia, considered the poorest large city in the United States, Gadsden’s research examines how to partner with vulnerable communities to better understand their cultural, social, racial, and political contexts and improve children’s learning opportunities and life trajectories.

At Penn GSE, Gadsden teaches in the Literacy, Culture, and International Education division and is director of the National Center on Fathers and Families. She is also faculty co-director of the Penn Futures Project and a faculty associate of the Penn Child Research Center, and served as associate director of the National Center on Adult Literacy.

Gadsen has spent her career studying how inequities affect the learning and lives of children. She describes how the current moment in our nation as families of color struggle disproportionately with the impact of the pandemic, and as a historic civil rights movement continues.

“The problems that are faced by the focal families of my work weren’t created by them,” says Gadsen. “Their barriers and challenges are rooted in a four-hundred-year history that begins with the enslavement of African people in the American colonies. Over time we have chipped away at the ways in which people have been denied rights, but in our nation today we are still fighting in the most fundamental of ways to protect the human experience and quality of life.”

“Reform is needed in every aspect of our systems of education, social services, health care, and government. We’re brilliant enough in our democracy to find the pieces of the systems that have worked and use those as a way of going forward. But reform has to be based on knowledge of the hardships that poor families face; it can’t just be based on assumptions about their lives. We need to hear their narratives and view these communities as powerful sources of data on how we can do things differently. And we have to bring people together with a shared goal of effecting change.”

Read more at Penn GSE.