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…”
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
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,
President and CEO
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.
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.
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.
Founder and President
For 5 years, I’ve been half-time at Isles, and half-time faculty, teaching Social Entrepreneurship, and sharing Isles’ lessons with Princeton students – next generation leaders. In my absence, COO John Hart provided essential leadership. We maintained audacious goals, and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved.
So after 38 years, I’ve decided to step down as Isles’ CEO at year’s end.
Just writing that sentence is a bit overwhelming. In April of 1981, we were students at Princeton, driving to Trenton to incorporate Isles. Uncertain of what we set in motion with our dreams and first-year budget of $10,000, who could have imagined 38 years later? What an honor to build this organization alongside so many friends and allies.
I look back with pride over the long arc of Isles’ evolution. I am literally writing our history now, highlighting Isles’ founding, milestones, lessons, and key people who made it possible. Over nearly four decades, the challenges have been awesome, but the benefits far greater!
I’ve grown up with Isles. I met my wife Liz at Isles, and we worked together for 20 of those 38 years. We helped build a “village” that in turn, benefited us and our sons – a true labor of love. My Isles colleagues are family, amazingly capable and committed to self-reliance and community health. Isles’ Board, led by Chair Linda Revelle, strongly supports our unique vision and team.
Founder transitions bring unique challenges. The best examples are well-planned, transparent, and extended. After I step down as CEO January 1, I intend to continue part time in an “outward-facing” role at Isles, assisting my successor as needed. So this is not yet goodbye! The Trustee Search Committee is coordinating the extensive search for our next CEO.
To support this transition, the board has decided to establish an Isles 2020 Fund, to be a part of my legacy. This board-restricted Fund will support our ongoing work during and after the transition. As you can imagine, the need for your support is greater than ever! To learn more, contact me or Director of Development, Patricia Walker, at 609.341.4734.
In a way, Isles is my 4th child. Like a parent, I’m learning to let go. But I hope you will lean in, now, to ensure that Isles continues to grow and innovate by strengthening people and places.
We’re planning a fun “Legacy Celebration” event on November 16 (click here for more information.) I hope you can join us!
Until then, accept my deepest thanks for your friendship, support and good will. We couldn’t have built this organization, career, and family, without you.
Founder and President