“Belonging & Othering: Reflecting on the State of Needham, Part I”

On Thursday, July 7th, the Needham Resilience Network met at the Center for the Heights. This meeting was the Network’s first look at the ‘State of Needham,’ where Network members would reflect on the sometimes different views and experiences they had shared in a pre-survey about belonging, trust, division, equity, and ‘othering’ in Needham. Upon entering the space, members were asked to reflect on how they were feeling about taking this ‘first look.’ 


Before launching into the survey results, we first discussed feedback from members’ 1-1 check-ins with the NRN co-Directors. Those takeaways included:

“What is resonating so far for you?” 

  • Meeting and building relationships with diverse others in Needham whom we might not otherwise meet or know previously

  • Learning and skill-building amidst diverse perspectives in a supportive environment 

  • Skills training - creating norms, communicating to understand vs. persuade, tools for challenging dialogue

  • That the NRN honors its time parameters

“What could be improved?”

  • More practice with challenging conversations 

  • A roadmap with short, medium and long term goals

  • Receiving discussion questions ahead of time 

  • A platform for communicating with members (ideas to be sent)

  • We often have more material than we can easily fit into our time together (consideration of extending meetings to 2 hours - vote pending)

  • Attendance - members notice when others are missing. They also understand that absences are sometimes unavoidable (Jen and the co-Directors will reach out to review calendars and identify upcoming conflicts)

“What’s your vision of the next 3-6 months?”  

  • Enjoying the work thus far and wanting to build on that

  • Taking on concrete planning for rapid response and building social cohesion in Needham



During our meetings: 

  • Thoroughly examine diverse perspectives and experiences having to do with belonging and othering in Needham (first internally, as a Network; then, as a compilation of data and stories/experiences from our sub-networks, and finally, through the results of a representative community survey)

  • As we reflect together, we will continue to build and practice dialogue skills

  • Determine a list of priority issues to work on, as a Network (which will build pathways for actions in the next trimester: rapid response team; prevention team supporting Needham Human Rights Commission)

In-Between Meetings: 

  • Taking NRN Public (press, Instagram, website launch, video…possibly a Network picnic, inviting all of our sub-networks, in October)

  • Members will lean into their liaison roles - first by sharing the link to the NRN community survey and gathering local lived experiences of belonging and othering from their sub-networks

NRN Survey Data

We will be reflecting on Needham through the lens of BELONGING & BRIDGING, and ‘OTHERING’ & BREAKING.

BELONGING is more than just feeling invited and welcome. It means feeling emotionally connected, being able to be one’s whole and authentic self (we are all many, actually!), feeling safe when expressing opinions, even when we know others may not like them; feeling respected, equal and agentic–able to influence decisions and outcomes; and feeling like one’s relationships are as satisfying as one wants them to be.

Belonging is psychological safety when a community has that – whether it’s a family, neighborhood, corporation, or Town – it is more creative, more productive, and better at solving problems. When people seek to create connections across difference, they are BRIDGING…they are extending the circle of belonging. When people are siloed, or choose to remain in their silos of like-minded others, they are BREAKING. 

Breaking goes hand in hand with ‘Othering” - when we don’t see or treat others as fully human (this can include not “seeing” them, different forms of bias, or hate), because it’s hard to imagine, value or empathize with perspectives that one doesn’t personally know.    

The NRN survey (n=25) provided a first window into the lived experiences of this group and their perspectives on safety, being heard, problem-solving and community intervention, belonging and othering. A full set of data/slides will be sent to Network members, but we ask that it not be circulated beyond the group.

Below, we summarize the results.

The NRN is diverse. By race, we are 42% BIPOC and 58% White (although if ex-officio members are not counted, since they are not voting on action items in the coming months, we are 50-50). We also have significant representation across political ideology, genders, sexual orientation, and national origin. This diversity is unique for a civic group (and essential to our ability to do this work), in Needham and beyond.

Our social networks are likely to inform our worldviews and our awareness of lived experiences unlike ours. White NRN member social networks tend to have a “few” BIPOC individuals within them, while BIPOC NRN member social networks tend to have “more than half” of their Networks consist of White residents. Liberal and conservative social networks also tend to consist of like-minded partisans.

NRN members are fairly confident about their own ability to listen and dialogue productively across difference, and about the community’s ability to respond to hate incidents in ways that support victims and their communities. They are less confident about others’ ability to listen respectfully to them, and about the community’s ability to prevent hate and bias.

White NRN members sit a full 1 point ahead of BIPOC members on a 1-5 scale of belonging in Needham, such that Whites have fairly strong local belonging and the BIPOC respondents experience a greater sense of ambivalence. This same pattern plays out with respect to satisfaction with Needham as a place to live.

Experiences of trust in Needham’s institutions, dignity amidst local interactions, and fear that one will be verbally or physically attacked also appear to differ by race (although such a small sample size does not allow for statistically reliable comparisons).

Small Groups Exercise

Four groups reviewed a portion of the NRN Survey data, and explored questions specific to their data. The members remained attuned to using the Communications Agreement created by the group. Following the small group exploration, they shared themes, hypotheses and questions with the large group.


This small group observed that NRN is the most diverse of all the civic groups in Needham, perhaps with the exception of NUARI. Many groups want to foster diversity, and one helpful action might be for those groups to seek out minority group organizations to attract interest versus having or expecting BIPOC groups to come to their informational gatherings. Extended board member terms may also be a factor in limiting diversity and prohibiting turnover. Organizations need a majority of the members of the board to adopt this new work and act intentionally. 

Problem-Solving Abilities

This small group noted that people are naturally less confident in others than they are in themselves. They may be underestimating their neighbors. It is daunting to think about how to ensure that everything will go well forever. People are often legitimately concerned about things not being sustainable and are less likely to have confidence that other people will maintain or create positive changes.

Experiences of Belonging, Satisfaction and Diversity

This small group lifted up the notion that we (in NRN) are stewards of our community. Since White respondents estimate that 86% of Needhamites support increased diversity in Needham lends itself to action/ advocacy on the part of White people to help make this happen. Our job in NRN can be to lift up a mirror to the state of Needham and then both help to decide what change to enact and create avenues to facilitate that change.

Experiences of Trust, Dignity and Fear in Needham by Race

This group proposed that Needham’s predominantly White history might account for the differences between BIPOC and White respondents regarding trust and treatment. They noted that people who lived in Needham all their lives (and whose parents and grandparents have lived here for generations) understandably have a strong sense of connection that others who are just moving from other places do not necessarily have.  

Law Enforcement was rated as more trustworthy than many other town entities, possibly reflecting the expansive efforts of the police force around building community relationships (or the fact that this was a discussion among community leaders, who might themselves have different experiences than the average resident when it comes to interactions with authorities).

In contrast, the fact that the lowest dignity rating for both White and BIPOC members is in interacting with locally elected officials might be explained by how officials have historically focused on self-advocacy versus listening; some appear to be dismissive. In the realm of relationship-building, the relatively high distrust of other residents might be explained by the fact that people are more isolated in many neighborhoods, with less interaction and time spent. 

Considering that the Network comprises community leaders who often have significant experience interacting with diverse others, the group wondered how the full community survey results might differ. 

Closing Pulse

After the large group share-out, the group reflected on how its feelings about this ‘first look’ had changed over the course of the evening. Many members expressed feeling moved. Additional observations included: 

  • The value of seeing and reflecting on the data 

  • The value of hearing others’ voices as part of the reflection

  • The experience of a growing safety in the Network 

  • Sadness at the challenges faced by our BIPOC members to feeling a strong sense of belonging in Needham

  • The challenge of hearing the stats - instead of taking it personally, trying to understand the experience of others and imagine positive changes

  • The data highlights that many of our neighbors may feel left behind

  • The perception that Needham Public Schools ranked high by both White and BIPOC residents 

  • The fact that while town officials constantly discuss trust-building, they are still ranking relatively lower than other groups on the trust measures

  • The awareness that residents experience the least sense of trust around other residents, which causes us to be aware that our neighbors may not feel a closeness or sense of belonging 

  • Our hearts break to imagine that many don’t feel like they belong; we have to repair this by having the difficult conversations

  • Lawn signs and flags can be very welcoming and helpful in creating a sense of belonging 

  • There is always room for improvement

  • Overarching ‘mantras’ included: ‘don’t assume’, ‘be curious’ and ‘hold awareness of how critical a sense of belonging is to every child and family. 


NUARI (Needham Unites Against Racism)

Marcus Nelson presented the history of the Needham Select Board’s creation of the Needham Unite Against Racism Initiative (NUARI) in 2020 “to foster a dialogue about racism in Needham and produce actionable strategies to ensure Needham is a welcoming and inclusive community.”

More information, including an extensive vision statement can be found at:


A strong example of NUARI’s commitment to creating communal spaces for dialogue and trust-building are the recently completed 3 series “Cops and Community” offering Needham residents the opportunity to understand both the history and current practices of law enforcement in Needham and the extensive efforts at partnering with a large array of groups in town. This year, NUARI is prioritizing the practice of providing guidance to other Boards and organizations on implementing the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion into their own work. 

At My Neighbor’s Table 

Georgina Arrieta Ruetenik, a community member with a zest for advocacy, organizing, and response, all partly orchestrated through her art of photography and being at the right places at the right time, focused on a Needham project - At My Neighbor’s Table. This initiative aims to promote equity in the community through conversations. Over the past years, these conversations, which involve the sharing of foods from people’s cultures, and moving between various houses of worship, tackled a variety of equity-related topics such as restorative justice, housing policy, and segregation in our schools. All are welcome!



NRN is inviting their sub-networks into the fold!!!!! In the next couple of weeks, subgroups will be asked about their lived experiences of belonging and discrimination/hate. These critical, anonymous narratives will be brought back to NRN for discussion and consideration of action. 

Keep your eyes peeled, as the official NRN Website will launch this summer! 


What We Are Reading/Watching/Listening to:

  • Suzie Wise has a fabulous new book, replete with ideas and exercises for local application. Check out Design for Belonging.

  • The Founders Bequeathed Us Something Radical. On July 4, the Executive Director of the Ford Foundation made a beautiful argument about what’s at stake in our democracy today, and why it’s worth fighting for. Core to his argument? Our country needs pluralists–citizens who can listen, speak and problem solve across difference.

  • This July 4th, Meet Three Americas by David French. In this short and powerful essay, conservative journalist David French invites our divided, exhausted country back to pluralism.

  • On Belonging & Democracy: In this podcast, Ezra Klein interviews Anne Applebaum, author of a new introduction to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt argued that democracies start to fall apart when people don’t feel a sense of belonging (and further, that lack of belonging leads to support for authoritarianism). 

Nichole Argo (NRN Co-Director) and Beth Pinals (NRN Co-Director)