The 2020 federal census painted a clear picture of a fairly dramatic shift in Needham’s demographics over a decade’s time.

After 40 years of minimal growth, the town’s overall population increased by 11.1% to 32,091. Perhaps more significantly, Needham’s non-white population has almost doubled since 2010 to nearly 20% of town residents.

That shift has coincided with the growth of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs in both the public and private sectors — a movement that accelerated after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis three years ago.

While the DEI movement has subsequently experienced various forms of pushback — generally from the so-called “anti-woke movement” —  Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick says Needham remains committed to its DEI goals.

As part of the town’s efforts to learn more about the current state of race in Needham, it used the biannual National Community Survey (NCS) to probe whether the lived experience in town differs among white and non-white residents.

The vast majority of the standard questions in the survey revealed few “statistically significant” variations in the opinions of Needham’s white and non-white residents on a wide range of topics such as quality of town services, feeling of safety, and numerous other community characteristics.

To further probe for possible disparity in responses by race, the town added multiple custom questions to the most recent NCS. It was administered in the spring of 2022 and received responses from a racially representative sample of 630 residents.

Fitzpatrick said the decision to add these questions came out of the town’s NUARI (Needham Unite Against Racism Initiative) process, an initiative that dates back to 2020 and is intended to craft a “vision statement for racial equity in Needham and guiding principles that will inform future actions to achieve that vision.”

Several of these custom questions produced responses that revealed more differences when compared by race. Specifically, non-white respondents reported a far greater sense of both experiencing and witnessing “unfair treatment because of your race, ethnicity, or color.”

Non-white residents also reported lower levels of trust and connection with their neighbors.  

Select Board member Marcus Nelson, the first Black person to hold that office in Needham, said the responses on feelings of trust did not surprise him. 

“It’s like generational trauma,” he said. “You’re taught time after time how to speak around white people or people who are the majority. You’re taught in a different way how to fit into white spaces and be good at it.”

“When you are the majority, you don’t have to be good at it —  or even try to be good at it if you really don’t want to be. It’s not a requirement for you.”

Still, Nelson said he is hopeful the town will remain committed to its DEI initiatives, although he’d prefer to see more rapid progress. 

“I think slow motion is better than no motion,” he said. “When I think about Kate (Fitzpatrick), and Katie (Assistant Town Manager Katie King) and the chief (Police Chief John Schlittler), what they are doing is more than just lip service.

“A lot of things have been put into place and hopefully into practice. If we sustain the practice – in our business practices, in the way that we hire, in the way we uplift – I hope all those things are sustained and it’s not just a moment.”

Anna Giraldo-Kerr, library trustee and also a non-white town elected official, echoes Nelson’s frustration with the slow pace of change. She specifically cited the Select Board’s more than two-year process in approving a key element in advancing the mission of the town’s Human Rights Commission.

In the 20-plus years she has lived in Needham, Giraldo-Kerr  said she has observed a pattern of foot dragging on multiple fronts.  “Things shouldn’t take that long,” she said. 

“My general comment is I think it’s a positive step forward to spend time on actually going through the process of getting feedback from the community,” she said of the survey. “That’s a step forward.

“I personally question the methods. I know it’s a big effort. I get that. But I wonder if this is the most effective way to measure progress on the issues of belonging and inclusion.”

She suggests the town follow the survey with qualitative research to augment the quantitative effort. “We tend to favor quantitative data that is statistically significant when really we need more qualitative information because that’s where you get to the nuances,” Giraldo-Kerr said.

“I’m glad to hear that town leadership is thinking they’re not done,” Giraldo-Kerr said.

Fitzpatrick says the town’s next steps are to do precisely that, to convene focus groups and discuss the issues face-to-face.

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