One of the trickiest parts about explaining the Needham Resilience Network to outsiders comes when they inevitably ask what it’s intended to do: What problem was it built to solve, what specific purpose was it meant to fulfill?
NRN co-directors Nichole Argo and Beth Pinals often pause on that. While they do accomplish goals and they do complete ambitious projects – such as the State of Needham report the group is working on – that isn’t fully the point of the NRN.
The NRN’s organizers believe that getting the group’s members together in one room, having them get to know one another, and building connections across groups in Needham is one of the foundational purposes of the network.
The NRN arose in the aftermath of events in 2020, when residents saw Black Lives Matter protests and the death of George Floyd in Minnesota on the national stage, as well as an uptick in hate-related incidents in this area. The Needham Diversity Initiative helped sponsor a workshop that brought various town officials, residents, and interested parties together to discuss what could be done to help build connections and reduce hate at the local level.
Getting these disparate groups together to work on something, keeping the network operational, and keeping stakeholders connected so they have established relationships in times of crisis is how they see the NRN making a lasting difference.
“That’s part of the groundwork. It’s not just preparation for steps — it’s actually relationship building, which is impactful itself,” Pinals said.
“We also learned that there’s a lot of mistrust,” Argo said.
It became clear there was a space for a group to exist outside the town government structure, one that would bring together traditional decision-makers like the superintendent of schools and the chief of police with a diverse set of town residents, from members of marginalized communities to faith, civic, and business community representatives. The hope was that creating communication and trust across these groups could lead to real dialogue that could be valuable both now and when a crisis arises in the future. A member of a marginalized community, for instance, might realize that they can connect with the police if needed and seek assistance or represent their needs.
“Usually, with challenges like this, if people are not aligned and already working together, those who are marginalized to begin with, become more marginalized,” Pinals said.
Once they had secured backing – between Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Crimson Lion/Lavine Family Foundation, they received enough funding for three years – in March 2022, they officially launched the NRN. The group met on the first Thursday of every month, going through icebreakers, meeting in small groups, tackling big topics, and generally trying to create bonds among themselves.
They also got underway on a much larger project: developing a State of Needham Report. In 2022, the NRN worked with a community surveying platform to identify residents’ attitudes on topics such as feeling a sense of belonging locally, health care access, diversity, discrimination, and hope for the future. Alongside that effort, the group spent months reviewing data and hearing presentations on subjects like food insecurity from local leaders such as Sandy Robinson, director of the Needham Community Council; and community satisfaction, by Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick.
Responses to the survey and the presentations offered encouraging reinforcement that Needham is, overall, a safe town where residents feel a sense of belonging. But they also showed the need for work. Responses to nearly all questions relating to issues of equity in community – trust in government, trust of one’s neighbors, belief that one will receive unfair treatment – were worse, often significantly worse, among people of color than among those identifying as white. Issues of housing affordability are prominent, especially among seniors; behavioral health issues have spiked in recent years, as have substance abuse problems; food insecurity has been on the rise, and it’s often hard to identify who needs help due to the stigma attached to the problem.
Over the next six months, the NRN will move into a response phase, proposing solutions to some of these issues. Members don’t expect to solve them overnight. But they hope to keep working, and in doing so to maintain the network.
“The idea of a resilience network, or a community council of any kind like this, is that you’re building a response capacity for anything,” Argo said. “Right now we’re facing hate, but in four years, it could be another pandemic, it could be climate issues that are specifically affecting Needham in some way. It could be a massive school crisis, there’s no teachers — whatever the issue is, the town has the infrastructure, the relational infrastructure, to make sure it can respond, bringing everyone along together.”
(Editor’s Note: Needham Observer Managing Editor Frederica Saylor Lalonde is a member of the NRN. She was not involved in reporting or editing this story.)
Needham resident Daniel Barbarisi is a senior editor at The Athletic and a non-fiction author.