Reflecting on 39 years

On this very day 39 years ago, a fellow student and I borrowed a car from a Princeton classmate and drove to Trenton to officially incorporate Isles, a new kind of nonprofit development organization.  Motivated by my family experience with poverty in Akron, Ohio and my Anthropology thesis, I grappled with a presumptuous notion – that Princeton students could do almost anything.  

We thought we could create, in challenged places like Trenton, better ways to assist families and communities to become more self-reliant and healthy.  We took a leap of faith in two ways: we could learn what to do, and the universe would support us.

Over four decades, that faith felt mostly well-placed.  Despite larger trends towards inequality and environmental un-sustainability, our efforts were rewarded with steady growth, purpose-driven personal satisfaction and real, visible progress.

Then along came Covid.  It threatens all of us, but not equally.  It particularly hurts those without savings, room to stretch out, access to health care and steady jobs.  Of course, that means largely brown and black-skinned people.  

At Isles, we feel assaulted on multiple fronts.  As a species, we are social animals, wanting to be together, and Isles’ community development work builds upon that nature. Yet the virus forces us to separate.  Families we serve face immediate threats.  So does our organization.  Isles’ business model relies on donors, government partners, foundations, public contracts, volunteers and allies like local universities.  They also face their own survival threats, and they are re-trenching. So yes, our investments and livelihoods are at risk.

Once again, I feel like that senior at Princeton, taking a leap into the unknown, hoping we can learn, and cautiously hoping that the world helps us succeed.

Luckily, we’re not starting from scratch again. We’ve learned a lot.  We know how to keep staff and volunteers safe and healthy, feed hungry students in our alternative high school with a food pantry, move education and job training online, and offer phone and web-based financial counseling to families that face financial ruin.  We’re safely helping hundreds of families on 70 “Covictory” gardens – so Trenton can grow more of its own food. 

In these uncertain times, we return to that leap of faith. This Covid era that both threatens and teaches will not last.  It too will pass.  Let’s not just hope, but make sure, that we learn from it. 

Marty Johnson, ‘81

Founder and CEO, Isles

A Message from the CEO

Dear Friend,

First, we hope that this message finds you healthy and safe. These are unusual times– to say the least!

We take pride in Isles’ culture. It pushes us to ask hard questions about our mission, and to continually learn. But now we must react to COVID-19, an unprecedented threat to the health and stability of those we serve.

The virus does affect everyone, but not equally. Communities like Trenton will be the hardest hit. They are densely packed. Their residents will be the first to be laid off, with fewer savings, limited health care access, reliance on school for food, and so much more. 

So heck yes, resources are needed!

How is Isles responding to this need?

  • Isles is helping build “cooperative gardens” and learning to train and communicate with gardeners through webinars. Access to quality food has never been more needed!
  • Isles’ financial counselors are offering virtual/tele-meetings to help workers and families as they try to navigate their rapidly changing financial situation.
  • Isles Youth Institute switched to online learning with Google classroom, and set up a pantry for hungry students. IYI is also connecting students and families to local restaurants doing food donations.
  • Isles, working with the Trenton Health Team, is maintaining a map of food distribution sites in the region.
  • Isles Center for Energy and Environmental Training (CEET) is exploring ways to bring their healthy homes training online and sharing resources to help families keep their homes clean and safe from harsh chemicals and asthma triggers.
  • The Social Profit Center at Mill One’s virtual leasing office is open for business, safe construction continues, and we’re developing virtual “member” options for the Center.

So yes, Isles is on the front lines, but we’re making systemic long-term change as well. This unprecedented threat is also joining people of good will in solidarity. In fact, we remember that Isles was borne of a notion that locally-based solutions (or “isles”) can foster self-reliance and sustainable healthy communities.

While you are at home “social distancing,” we invite you to read our 2019 Annual Report! This was an important transitional year for Isles. We expanded energy efficiency and solar, job training, education, electric vehicles, and more in places that really need them. And we continued to move Trenton towards a lead-safe future, support the emerging arts district, take a leadership role in gathering data to support redevelopment (including an updated vacant property survey), move the Social Profit Center forward and more–all while focusing on our North Star: family self-reliance and healthy, sustainable places.

Finally, as we monitor the impact of the virus on our work and communities, we want to assure you that our staff are safe and healthy. The vast majority of staff are working from home. Those who are participating in shutdown-exempt activities, such as construction and landscaping/gardening, are safely working in the field. Over the past 5 weeks, our team at Isles has shown remarkable resilience, supporting and caring for each other and our mission–often with humor amidst the tears.  

Yet this can only happen if we remain calm, courageous, and supported by good folks like you.

Thank you so much for making it possible!


In common unity,

Marty Johnson
President and CEO

COVID-19 Resources

Isles offices are currently closed to the public. Staff are working remotely and are available to assist you in a variety of areas. See below, as well as our Isles’ Pandemic Response page, for resources and additional information regarding how Isles is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emergency Food Access

Isles, in partnership with Trenton Health Team, is maintaining a map of food distribution sites, updated daily. Click here to the view the map

Financial Solutions and Housing Counseling

In this rapidly evolving situation, even in households where finances are not typically a cause for concern, individuals may soon find themselves unable to pay their bills and/or meet basic expenses. For information on financial assistance, bill payment relief and COVID-19 scams, click here

Isles continues to serve our Isles Financial Solutions and housing counseling customers via virtual and telephone meetings.

Urban Agriculture

In times of economic instability and supply chain disruptions, having the capacity to grow your own food is a critical skill. Isles is working with our plant & seed suppliers to ensure that we have resources to distribute to our network of school & community gardens. In addition, we are working to make upcoming trainings available virtually. Email to be added to our email distribution list for upcoming webinars.

Healthy Homes

Click here to view Isles’ quick start cleaning guide for best practices in regard to cleaning for COVID-19 while maintaining a chemical-safe home.

For additional resources on maintaining a healthy home see the links below from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An important update from the FDA regarding hand sanitizers: they have seen an increase in products labeled to contain ethanol, but have tested positive for toxic levels of methanol contamination. Methanol, or wood alcohol, is a substance that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested and can be life-threatening when ingested. Check the labels of your hand sanitizers against the FDA’s product list here:

Isles Youth Institute

Our current student cohort has transitioned to an online learning environment. If you or someone you know is looking to earn their GED, contact for more information about future enrollment.

Social Profit Center

While Isles’ Social Profit Center is currently closed to the public, our virtual leasing offices are open and available to discuss leasing options that can begin as early as June 2020. Email for more information.

For general information about COVID-19, visit

COVID-19 Update


In Effect – Wednesday, March 17, 2020

Dear Isles staff, customers, community partners, neighbors and supporters,

The well-being of everyone in our community is our top priority.  We want to protect our community’s health and safety by following the advisement of leaders in the public sector and the CDC and have decided to close Isles’ main offices- 10 Wood Street and 33 Tucker Street-  until March 31st. At that time, we will reassess as to when we will re-open our offices.

The majority of Isles staff will work remotely during this time period.  A “skeleton crew” of staff whose work has little or no interaction with the public and/or does not put them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 may continue to work on site as needed.

It is our hope that through this social distancing we can continue to meet our mission to foster self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities while helping our staff avoid the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Thank you for your support during these unprecedented times.  We hope you all stay safe, and look forward to seeing you again soon.

A Solution Towards Saving

Isles Financial Solutions is a customer-centered financial capability service that supports improved financial knowledge and the ability to put that knowledge into everyday practice.  The key element is the on-going direction and support from a financial coach, who helps the customer build skills and keeps them motivated and focused on their goals. 
“Gail” was in the process of getting ready to buy a house, but as with most customers she needed to work on improving her credit score and to take care of some debts.  So Gail worked with her IFS counselor to create a savings and spending plan so that she could start paying down her debt and begin to understand her personal spending habits.
A year later, Gail had significantly improved her credit score and took care of her outstanding debt.  There was one more thing that was bothering her, the interest for her car payment.  Because of Isles’ relationship with the Princeton Credit Union, her coach suggested she reach out to them.  However, Gail had found another offer through a well-known personal finance company’s website.  Seizing this “teachable moment,” we asked her to look deeper into both offers.  Once she got past the advertising for the supposed “better deal,” she discovered that the offer from the credit union was much better.  Through that re-financing she was able to lower her interest rate from 18.99% to 8.99% and reduced her payment length from 42 to 36 months, which altogether saved her $2,028.96.
In addition, she raised her credit score to 640 and is in the process of qualifying for a CRA loan at a excellent interest rate, thanks to her efforts.  We are pleased to see Gail on her path to financial self-reliance.  

January 2020 Update

To keep Isles’ friends in the loop regarding my transition, here is an update.  A national search and consulting firm, Raffa-Marcum from Washington D.C. is supporting Isles’ CEO Search Committee.  Response has been excellent.  Our goal is to have a final decision by late spring.

At that point, I will stay on in a strategy, fundraising and support role for my successor for at least several months.  I will also serve as ex-officio member of Isles’ board of trustees. 

Most importantly, Isles management team is seasoned, strong and deeply committed to Isles unusual mission – and the inclusive ways we use to achieve it.  In particular, John Hart, Isles’ extremely capable COO, has managed Isles’ day to day activities for six years, while I’ve been teaching half time.  I am supremely confident in the next generation of Isles. We’ll keep you posted on our progress!


As this transition unfolds, I’ve been asked to share learnings from my 39 years at Isles.  Recently, the Princeton YWCA decided to recognize me as part of their Tribute to Women Awards.  As the first man to receive this award, they asked me to share some thoughts on the award and their mission – to empower women and eliminate racism.    

First, I thank the wise judgment of the Princeton YWCA Committee to have chosen my wife, Liz Johnson, 20 years before me!

How does it feel to be the first man to receive this award from the YWCA?  First, I acknowledge (all men should) the benefits I’ve received simply because I am a man.  I persevered for 39 years, but as a male entrepreneur, it was assumed that I could manage complex (male dominated) political and social relationships, protect myself in tough urban neighborhoods, connect to a diverse regional network of supporters, and of course, raise and manage money.   

While decades of hard work and sacrifice went into creating and growing Isles and the other organizations that I co-founded, it would have been much harder if I was a woman.  The same is true of course, if I was a person of color.   

Thankfully, the times have improved since those early days.  By far, most leaders of nonprofits in the Trenton region are now women.  But troublesome biases still exist, and it is all of our responsibility to address them.

At Isles, our “north star” or end game is family self-reliance and sustainable communities.  To meet this audacious mission, we developed approaches and tools for families and youth to use to further self-reliance and resilience.  We partner with communities to build places (homes, former factories, gardens, parks, community plans), train and educate youth and adults, help families build wealth, clean up environmental threats to children – typically at the family level.  This is because families are still our strongest social unit.  Women head most (but not all) of our families. 

How does this connect to race?

An old Anthropology professor of mine at Princeton, Ashley Montagu once noted, “there is a remarkable parallel between the phenomena of race prejudice and the prejudice against women… How often do men mistake their prejudices for the laws of nature!”  

At Isles, we choose to work with mostly black and brown communities, because of the systemic nature of racism here in Mercer County and beyond.  For example, roughly 8000 poor white families and 11000 poor black families live in our county.  A white family in poverty has only a 1 in 20 chance of having to send their child to a high poverty school.  (They fit in to the suburban middle-class fabric).  If you are black though, odds are 3 out of 4 that your child must go to a high poverty school.  

Since two of the primary predictors of student outcomes are peers and parents, why are we surprised when students of color too often underperform?

Our own story:

Each of us learns about racism and sexism differently.  I was with my mother 2 weeks ago, and we discussed her family’s experience with the KKK when she was a little girl in Akron, Ohio.  She spoke of how it felt to hide in their closets when the KKK burned crosses in their yard, and how the flickering flames shined through their windows at night.  Her family was white, but they happened to be the first Catholics in that part of Akron, so they learned a bit about how outsiders felt, and to fight.  

My father, on the other hand, had a Klansman father from Alabama.  Growing up, I sensed that might be the case, but it was only acknowledged on my father’s death bed. 

Here I am, one generation later, a white guy working and living in Trenton, mostly a community of color.  Trenton is surrounded by one of the wealthiest regions in the country, and we often grapple with a collective sense of inferiority.

But this was an important training ground for us and our three sons.  They learned a bit about minoritarian status, how to judge people by the content of their character, and the most important lesson – how to be multi-tribal, connecting with different kinds of people.  

Do I have advice for others coming in behind me?  This is not a theoretical question.  We are searching for my successor as I write this.  What traits should they bring?   

First, I’d encourage them to be virtuous: compassionate, honorable, honest, etc.  But the most important of the virtues is courage.  That is what is required to step out of the herd and think and act differently.  The scope and scale of the world’s challenges cries out for independent thinkers, and courageous actors.

At the same time, s/he needs to connect to multiple tribes, or herds.  For thousands of years, we’ve been culturally wired to protect our tribe, yet the challenges often come from outside – threats like climate change, the global economy and migrations of people.  More than ever, we need those that can look inward at their tribe and outward at the same time, and not flip out.

My advice to my fellow men – especially white men?  It’s OK!  This is in our, and future generations’ best interest to support equal status and opportunity for women and communities of color.  Why care on a personal level?  We share a responsibility to right historic wrongs today, but perhaps more important is that by being alongside, not in front of, women and communities of color, we will be more whole.  

Back to Montagu in 1968: “The recent development of the women’s liberation movement constitutes a happy augury for the future, for the liberation of women will mean also the liberation of men.”

How will I move this agenda forward in the years ahead?  I feel a responsibility, and opportunity, to help others learn from our experience.  I will write and teach and connect to others that want to bring Isles-like policies, places, self-reliance and other benefits to their own communities.  They shouldn’t have to go 39 years to figure it out. 

On the Passing of Paul Volcker

Yesterday, a generation’s torch was extinguished.

Paul Volcker is being remembered as courageous in the face of awesome pressures. He was a smart, badass, fair-minded financier. Those attributes ring true, but I remember him as a powerful friend who cared a lot about fairness and who felt an unusual, sober connection to those who lacked wealth and power.

As he told me, despite all the fancy economic theory and debates (which he witnessed in spades), communities need to take care of themselves, and all of those with resources, especially the wealthy, have a basic responsibility to help. Thus, he came to Trenton numerous times, saw our work firsthand, and became a long term, vital supporter of Isles, and me personally.

A few years ago, Paul and his wife Anke made a $1 million matching pledge to help us cover a critical funding gap for our Social Profit Center. We will celebrate them (and Paul’s father, Paul Sr., a former Teaneck, NJ fair-minded business administrator) with a legacy memorial at the building.

Paul’s influence was personal, not just professional. At times, when I felt that we were not moving fast or far enough in our work (so much un-done!), Paul reminded me of the value of the work itself and the value of exploring and finding our own path, no matter how hard.

Paul had seen so much, yet he cared about us down here in Trenton. He certainly didn’t have to. I am going to miss his courageous voice, friendship and inspiration.

2019 Year End Appeal

Dear Friend,

Years before the term “sustainable development” was coined, we created Isles to foster it where it was needed most.  How?  By providing tools, ideas and organizing help to community-based groups (or “islands”) that wanted to develop their economy and restore their environment.   

We started by helping neighborhoods build affordable homes, grow organic food on local land, and create parks.  Over time, we branched into startup businesses, youth education, wealth building, green job training, anti-violence strategies and effective ways to protect youth from toxic environmental hazards.  We converted a vacant factory into a special center for social impact groups to thrive together, we improved public policies, and also helped build other bedrock organizations, like NJ Community Capital, to grow our impact.   

A set of beliefs guided us.  First, families and individuals are capable – more than we tend to expect, even in tough communities, where residents rarely get to show those capabilities.  Treat others the way we want to be treated, with dignity and capacity for self-determination and power.  We also knew that restoring the environment was key for the health of future generations. 

But these were just beliefs and ideas, and people tend to over-rate them.  To actually build Isles, theory would not cut it, and we had no book or blueprint.  For 39 years, we organized ourselves to research and debate good practices.  We then carved our own path, trying to be thoughtful, pivoting, keeping faith while leaning on each other.  As a team, we thought big yet focused on quality.  We stayed independent enough to stay on mission, not follow the next new trend. 

The results from this past year?  Jorge, a kid who was kicked out of high school, joined numerous friends who now have full-time jobs after graduating from Isles Youth Institute.  More than 150 homes were tested for lead and other health hazards: 60 of those homes were renovated, making them safe for children, energy efficient, and more affordable for families.  We added three new community gardens to the nearly 70 we manage across the city.

That’s just one year of our work—we’ve been focused on our mission of self-reliance and sustainability for nearly four decades.  Isles Youth Institute has supported over 1,150 students like Jorge.  Six hundred homes have been purchased or saved from foreclosure.  More than 350 homes have been renovated to be lead safe, nearly 500 have been fully rehabilitated or built from scratch, and more than 1,000 have been weatherized to be more energy efficient.

I look back with pride over the long arc of Isles’ evolution, filled with milestones, lessons, and key partners who made it possible.  You are an integral part of that history.  Isles is special; it has stood the test of time.

Your gifts to Isles invest in healthy communities – and the future of this work.  You help us create community-based solutions and resources to face tough challenges.  Your donation makes this work possible.

Especially during this transitional time, your contribution is more important than ever. 

In community,

Marty Johnson
Founder and President