John Lewis

I will always remember the talk I had with John Lewis eight years ago. Our Congressman, Rush Holt had brought him to Trenton, where he gave a thoughtful civil rights address to about 100 people. 

I spoke to him alone after his talk. 

I told him, “I have relatives down in your congressional district, but I reckon they may not be supporters of yours. Many of them are rednecks…

You might be interested in my story. My father’s father was a racist Klansman from the Alabama-Georgia border, who moved up to Akron, Ohio to work in the tire factories. 

My mother, on the other hand, grew up in a family that was the first Catholic family in their community in Akron. As a little girl, she had to hide in the closet when the KKK burned crosses in their yard. Although they were white, they were the first Catholics to move in, and the Klan threatened to tar and feather my mother and her siblings. Traumatized, they grew up to be Klan fighters. 

She and my father met in high school and married. I grew up with these opposing forces. I just want you to know Congressman, that I, the next generation, choose to do anti-racism, community development work in Trenton’s almost all Black and Latino communities.  

You should know that some of us are learning”.   

He took a step back and said, “I’m really glad you told me that story.  I tend to only hear about all that is undone…Tell me about Isles…”

Marty Johnson

A Message from Isles’ Leadership

Dear Friend, 

Like many, we’re grappling to understand and respond to the chaos and disorganization around us—the senseless killing of George Floyd and so many others, police/protester violence, and unequal impacts of COVID-19. Here in Trenton, murders and gun-violence have spiked over the past few weeks, and yesterday, a twelve-year-old girl was shot next door to our Wood Street offices.  

Threats are both immediate and systemic. From our educational system to business disinvestment to few supermarkets to pervasive lead poisoning in homes, brown and black families bear the proverbial, and real, boots on the throat. By the way, life expectancy in Trenton is 12 years less than 8 miles up the road in Princeton Junction.

Yet people remain resilient and capable. Isles’ work is rooted in an anti-racist belief that, if given the right tools and resources (like those the middle class takes for granted), families and communities can determine their own futures. We focus on a longer-term prize—family self-reliance and healthy communities, so we help residents care for themselves by growing food, educating young people, buying a home, training for future-focused green jobs and getting toxins out of communities. 

Despite these efforts, much more is needed. In addition to the above, we are rolling up our sleeves and sewing masks, creating at-home grow kits, delivering food and supplies to families in need, and learning new online skills, like teaching high school students, job training and financial services.

We started to work specifically on youth anti-violence 5 years ago, and we developed a Leadership Academy to foster youth non-violence. Today, we build safe parks, gardens, homes and public interest centers. Recreation services for kids connect them to fun and each other. On a larger policy stage, Isles collaborates with the NJ Attorney General’s office, local police, and other nonprofits to expand youth recreational programs and support services, improve community policing efforts, and support safer streets. 

Obviously, this is not enough. We continue to explore and push new ways to counter violence and build accountable policing. We’re supporting the creation of a ‘Use of Force’ database and advocating for standardizing use of force policies and reinvigorating citizen police boards. We’re implementing an anti-violence plan we helped develop with the Capital City Youth Violence Coalition.

We hear lots of voices rising up against the pain—a good and necessary start. But we urge real action, remaining hopeful that thoughtful steps can continue to move us towards a longer-term goal of fair, just, and sustainable communities—where all can thrive. 

In community, 

Isles Leadership Team