Belonging and Social Cohesion in Needham

On Thursday, May 4th, the Needham Resilience Network met at the Center at the Heights and reflected on data from the Needham Resilience Network’s community survey. In sum, Needham scores above the national baseline for most measures of belonging and social cohesion, but non-white Needhamites report significantly lower belonging, satisfaction, and social cohesion scores than white Needhamites.


ICE BREAKER: What if...

To start, members viewed a painting in groups of three. Each person in the group crafted a story about it (e.g., the figures in the painting, their connection, the context) and then discussed each other’s imagined narratives. 

STATE OF NEEDHAM: Social Cohesion and Belonging

Belonging matters. Reporting on results from a representative national survey in “The Belonging Barometer: The State of Belonging in America,” co-authors Nichole Argo and Hammad Sheikh introduce a new, multi-faceted measure of belonging and show that Americans’ sense of belonging is positively associated with a variety of critical life outcomes, from health to workplace dynamics, and from local social cohesion to support for US democracy. The report also reveals ways in which diversity and belonging are interdependent. Unfortunately, a majority of Americans report feeling a sense of non-belonging in the workplace (64%), the nation (68%) and their local community (74%). 

Since its publication, thought leaders from across the political spectrum have reflected on the national-level implications of the Belonging Barometer (see recent essays in the Washington Post, the National Review, and the New York Times), suggesting that the concept of belonging resonates for Americans.

Belonging has been a core goal and organizing principle of the NRN since its inception. It is also a theme in how the NRN measures impact. From August-October, 2022, to assess Needham’s sense of belonging and social cohesion and provide a baseline to measure its impact, the NRN fielded its own locally representative survey. Working with the National Research Center at Polco, participation postcards were sent to 4,500 randomly selected Needham households. The NRN also encouraged participation at the library and within its member networks. The survey closed with 536 respondents (yielding a response rate of 12%; 77 non-white). It was weighted post-hoc for gender, race and age. The resulting margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points around any given percentage for questions answered by all respondents.

Below is a summary of results. (Readers can access the full presentation deck here.) 

Needham vs a National Baseline

Compared to a nationally representative sample, both white and non-white Needhamites report significantly higher scores on general health and lower scores on stress and loneliness.

  • Compared to a nationally representative sample, white Needhamites report significantly higher scores for overall local belonging (3.5 vs 3.2); non-white Needhamites report less overall local-level belonging than non-white Americans overall (3.1 vs 3.2, a difference that is not statistically significant).

  • Compared to a nationally representative sample, both white and non-white Needhamites report significantly higher scores on neighborhood satisfaction (w = 4.3 vs 3.9; nw = 3.9 vs 3.7).

  • Compared to a nationally representative sample, both white and non-white Needhamites report significantly higher scores for local community satisfaction (“How satisfied are you with Needham as a place to live?”) (w = 4.3 vs 3.7; nw = 4.1 vs 3.5).

  • Compared to a nationally representative sample, both white and non-white Needhamites report significantly higher scores in their agreement with the question: “Things in [my local community] have changed so much that I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own town” (w = 3 vs 2.4; nw = 3.4 vs 2.6).

  • Compared to a nationally representative sample, both white and non-white Needhamites report significantly higher scores in their agreement with the statement: “If more families from different races, cultures, countries or religions were to move here, it would benefit my neighborhood” (w = 4 vs 3.2; nw = 3.9 vs 3.4).

Belonging in Needham

  • Non-white Needhamites report significantly less overall local belonging than white Needhamites (3.1 vs 3.5). 

  • Examining 8 specific items on the Needham belonging barometer: Significantly more white Needhamites than non-white Needhamites “agree” or “strongly agree” that they feel: emotionally connected (59% vs 40%), welcomed and included (66% vs 47%), valued for self and contributions (40% vs 28%), and comfortable expressing opinions (68% vs 55%). Significantly more non-white than white Needhamites “agree” or “strongly agree” that they feel: unable to influence decision making in town (45% vs 26%), unable to be one’s whole and authentic self (26% vs 12%), and sometimes being treated as “less than” others (29% vs 10%). For one item, “I feel like an insider who understands how Needham works,” the difference between white and non-white scores is not statistically significant – however both groups report low scores (23% w, 16% nw).

  • We also asked, “Does overall belonging in Needham differ by socioeconomic status, age, years in town, national origin district, race, or homogeneity of social network?” Just two of these factors are associated with a sense of reduced belonging in Needham: 1) having a more homogenous local social network (this finding is similar to the national Belonging Barometer survey), and 2) being a racial minority (this is different from the national baseline survey, where local correlations with race fell away once socioeconomic status was controlled for).  

Satisfaction and Social Cohesion in Needham

  • As in the nationally representative baseline Barometer, local belonging scores in Needham are significantly associated with social cohesion outcomes. 

  • Non-white Needhamites report significantly less neighborhood satisfaction than white Needhamites (3.9 vs 4.3).  

  • Non-white Needhamites report less satisfaction with Needham as a place to live than white Needhamites (4.1 vs 4.3, but this difference is not statistically significant).

  • Non-white Needhamites report significantly more agreement than white Needhamites when it comes to the question, “Things in Needham have changed so much that I sometimes feel like a stranger in my own town.” (3.4 vs 3)


In groups of four, NRN members reflected on the following questions (members’ responses are written in blue):
1) What was striking or surprising from the presentation?

  • The rate of diversification in Needham is striking 

  • For both white and non-white residents, Needham’s belonging scores are higher than the national baseline.  

  • The fact that non-white Needhamites are significantly more likely to “feel like a stranger” due to local change is curious. Could this be explained by the fact that many who completed the survey are long time Needhamites who might be feeling that things are changing economically (people are getting priced out - 90% of what people talk about when they talk with town manager), resulting in feeling peripheralized/ separate/ a sense of loss?

  • White respondents seem to be feeling discomfort amidst change–what is the source of it, and how could we ease that experience? The fact is that change is hard AND change is potentially good. 

  • Is the data statistically significant? (NRN response: Yes, when explicitly stated). Is it possible that strong-belonging Needhamites were more likely to take the survey than weak-belonging Needhamites, and that is why we see such high belonging scores?  It is possible and concerning that individuals from traditionally marginalized groups might have been deterred from taking the survey due to distrust (e.g., they didn’t know the NRN) or because question items like those regarding income made them feel uncomfortable. (Response: Distrust might well have deterred respondents – most Needhamites didn’t know anything about the NRN at that time. However, the survey didn’t ask an ‘objective income’ question. For income, the item was relative, e.g. “The median income in Needham is $161,000. Would you say you are better off, the same, or worse off than this number?”).

2) Based on the data from tonight, what are some of the social cohesion strengths we’re seeing in Needham? 

  • Needham’s significantly above the national baseline for greater health, overall belonging, neighborhood satisfaction, and above national average openness to demographic change – this is important in a time of increasing diversity.  

  • Needham is already engaging in some significant welcoming and community cohesion efforts.

  • 3) Based on the data from tonight, which themes stand out to you as potential growth edges, or areas of inequity?

  • Some people feel less valued here. Certainly this is the case by race (w vs nw). Could it also be related to their status of living here or only working/attending school  here? Should there be more efforts to fully engage and embrace those who work/participate in the NPS schools, but not live in Needham?

  •  Some Metco students experience a sense of not fully belonging in Needham, where they spend their days, or in Boston, where they live. In a sense they are ‘without a country’ What could help them to feel at home in Needham AND in Boston? 

  • Age may be a factor; At what stages/ages are people more engaged in the community, and how can we engage those who are not typically active? 


The NRN reviewed its timeline to lay out the roadmap for the remainder of Year 2. This time the ‘ACTIONS’ were emphasized preparing for the June discussion of “State of Needham” Takeaways and Action Priorities for 2023-24.