September 2019 Update

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.
In community,
Marty Johnson
Founder and President         

March Update

Dear Friends,

More and more, we talk – and worry – about social inequality, climate change, authoritarian rule – and can we make meaningful change?

Yes, in many ways, the bad ‘system is rigged.’ But can we rig a good system, too?  Yes, but it requires more than talk and worry – it requires action.

For over 38(!) years, we took our youthful energy, ideas and willingness to learn and applied them to Isles’ work.  We found better ways to strengthen challenged communities and restore the environment at the local, “isles” level.  The key is to honor family capacity for self-reliance, provide tools that they can use, create healthy places and then, to a large extent, get out of the way. 

Our staff, board, and volunteers honor the wisdom of communities, gaining new ideas. We   then share smart research and evidence-based data from across the country.  Our broad base of supporters makes innovation possible in this messy collision. The results are highlighted in this Annual Report

Can we teach others to do this?  Of course. Increasingly, we share our lessons and train others.  This year, Isles affected statewide policy around hazardous home lead threats, violence prevention and electric vehicle access for urban communities. I expanded my teaching of future leaders at the Keller Center at Princeton University, and we developed webinars, case studies for the classroom, op-eds, and we are compiling Isles’ history. All this occurred as we expanded Isles work on the ground. 

This doing and thinking are possible because of organized people and organized money. That includes our volunteer board, adeptly led by Michele Minter over the past 3 years. In January, Linda Revelle stepped into the role of Chair of Isles board of trustees. 

These are exciting, dynamic times at Isles. Beyond talk and worry, we act. But we need your help. Thanks for being there! Check out and let us know what you think.

In community,


Happy Holidays

Happy holidays!

Long ago, someone said, “Do something with your life that’s beautiful and will last.” That sentiment stuck with me, and I suspect you can relate to it too.

Is there anything more beautiful and lasting than helping others? Especially when “helping” means empowering families and communities – even tough ones – to be better, healthier, and more stable? And it goes on. Each person, each family we help offers a better chance for their children. It’s an enduring legacy and yes, research shows that helping others is both healthy and contagious.

 You can affect a family’s stability, their children’s health and IQ, their nutrition, their wealth, the health of their homes, and even climate change.

How? By supporting the work we do, and have done, for 37 years. As you can see from the attached highlights, Isles is a rare organization that finds innovative ways to strengthen families and make environments healthier.

Isles provides tools and training to foster self-reliance. Fundamentally entrepreneurial, we teach students and their parents how to grow their own healthy food in over 60 community gardens, how to convert toxic homes to healthy ones for children, and how to manage finances in ways that build wealth.

We also create healthy, energy efficient, sustainable places to live, work and play. Isles rebuilds homes, solar-powered former factories, parks, greenways, and more.  We then share that knowledge with others.

Isles saves families and taxpayers lots of money, reducing costs for energy, food, health care, education, housing, and much more.

These stories show how your support impacts families, kids, and communities.


Junior year, Julio left high school. In his words, “I didn’t know what to do, and I was embarrassed at being at a seventh-grade level, so I stopped going…”

In six short months, after entering the “tough-love” culture of Isles Youth Institute (IYI), he completed the rigorous Mental Toughness orientation, studied hard, attained certifications in carpentry and fork-lift operation, and interned at NASCAR’s Urban Youth Racing School. Later, he earned a diploma and even won the 2018 IYI Elizabeth Gray Erickson award for optimism and courage.

“It was a feeling I can’t really explain. It’s like your life is declining and you’re doing so bad, but then you finally feel like you succeeded in something. For your life to hit a 180 – man, it’s a great feeling, I loved it.” Julio thrived at IYI, and now works there helping other students travel the same path.


The Perez family fell behind in their mortgage after the birth of their twin boys. Isles’ Housing Counselor Elena helped them negotiate with the bank to successfully modify their mortgage. 

But the story doesn’t end there. Elena learned that one of the twins had elevated blood lead levels, so she connected them to Isles’ lead and healthy homes workers. They discovered the source of the lead: deteriorating windows. Within a few weeks, Isles repaired the house, and the child’s lead levels have come down.

As a result, several of Mr. Perez’s co-workers have come to us to buy a first home, improve their credit, get a mortgage, or test and clean lead in their home.


You can see the difference your investment makes. This entrepreneurial work only happens when you and others get involved. 

Please mail your annual gift today or make a secure gift at

We need your help more than ever. Thank you for caring, and acting.

With gratitude and in community,


Happy Thanksgiving


Dear Friend,

The Dalai Lama once said, “The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.”

That is both metaphor and real for us at Isles. Through community and school gardens, over 1,000 culturally diverse families and students grow tens of thousands of pounds of fresh food – and deep roots – in the soil of Trenton and beyond.

This time of year, we give thanks to you for helping us build and turn that “soil of appreciation.” Our work would not be possible without you.

In the coming days, you’ll receive a request for support from Isles, describing the impacts you made possible in 2018. We’ll also launch our online #GivingTuesday campaign just after Thanksgiving.

I hope you will help us develop meaningful pathways to family self-reliance and community health.

And I trust you agree – we can use more goodness in the country and world! We can cultivate it together.

From all of us here at Isles, have a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Marty Johnson

Isles' Paper Published in Federal Reserve

Why do we pay so much attention to child lead poisoning? For starters, thousands (up to half) the kids in Trenton and older suburbs can be affected by it. Research is increasingly clear – even at low levels, lead impacts IQ, behavior, and other health factors. With all the talk of and investment in education reform, nothing would be more cost effective at increasing child IQ in a region than removing lead from the environment, especially from homes, where kids spend 70% of their time.

As importantly, despite lots of complex research and policy position papers and even financial investment, a basic problem prevailed. Before Isles’ efforts, no one had characterized the source of the lead in Trenton. We tested thousands of homes, learned that 80% of the lead comes from their dust (not their water, like Flint). But we didn’t stop there. We developed low cost ways to make homes both energy efficient and healthy. We also trained local contractors to do the same, while working to gain the trust of residents and property owners, who for good reason, often don’t like folks inspecting their homes.

To a large extent, because of Isles’ experience, New Jersey’s Lead Pilot funding program was re-structured and re-funded at $10M annually. We’re successfully raising other funds to do targeted renovation of homes, making them safe, efficient, and comfortable, while creating quality jobs in the process. The long-term savings to families and taxpayers are immense – $17 – $54 saved for every $1 invested in preventing lead poisoning. With this experience and policy changes we are pursuing, we can set our sights on making Trenton homes lead safe by 2027.

Like other work that we develop at Isles, we are teaching community groups and policymakers our lessons. We are very pleased that the Federal Reserve of San Francisco recently published our paper, When Homes Are the Most Dangerous Place: How a Community Development Organization Learned to Get the Lead Out. It offers a story of perseverance, success and educational failures over 15 years. Why does the Federal Reserve care about this? Because their member banks hold over a trillion dollars in assets that are potentially poisoning children. It’s time to figure this out.

All of this occurred because social entrepreneurs decided to keep finding better ways to foster self-reliance and community health. It took over 15 years and willingness to work on the ground and learn from researchers.

It also took flexible sources of funds to pay for this learning – and action. Unrestricted funding from donors like you made it possible. Thank you.

2018 Annual Report

As chaos swirls at the national level, I remain hopeful knowing there are thoughtful, hardworking people who partner with Isles to tackle tough challenges, build community, and make a difference. Your support makes this possible. This year’s Annual Report shows our work in action.

Take, for example, the over 300 gardeners who make up Isles Garden Support Network. This year, these neighbors and friends will develop and maintain 70+ community and school gardens. Together, they grow healthy food for their families, cool the hot streets with green oases, reduce blight and vacancy (and related crime), and beautify neighborhood landscapes.

Last week, I met with a group of new Isles Youth Institute students. Though they previously struggled in school, they are optimistic about the future. These students aren’t just getting a high school diploma – they are learning vocations and becoming the next generation of leaders in their communities.

To make Trenton lead-safe within 10 years, community health workers, Princeton University students, IYI students, and local contractors are joining forces with Isles. The impact of removing lead from homes and backyards will be healthier kids and families, better students, reduced costs for criminal justice, lower health care costs, reduced energy bills, and more.

As Isles moves into the Social Profit Center at Mill One, we’ll join the growing family of organizations, social businesses, and artists who share affordable spaces and technology in fun, energy efficient office, studio, meeting, and assembly spaces.

These examples are made possible by small groups of committed, optimistic people organizing to achieve powerful results. In fact, this month, 37 years ago, three of us started Isles with no funds, no track record, and limited life experiences. We didn’t wait for Washington or a growing economy to solve our challenges. We thought we could make a difference, and we did. Of course, our work continues to evolve.

Enjoy the 2017 Annual Report and the impactful stories you’ve made possible. On behalf of all of those we serve, thank you.

Once more, we can’t do this work without you. Please give generously today.

In community,


Why Does Isles Do this Work, this Way?

Dear Friends,

People ask, “Why does Isles do this work, this way?”

Well, over 37(!) years ago, we wanted to find better ways to strengthen communities and restore the environment at the local, “isles” level. Since then, we’ve searched and tested the best, affordable pathways to our mission: self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities.

After nearly 4 decades of trial, error, learning, and shifting political and financial trends (especially this past year), today’s Isles provides a unique toolbox for families and communities. In four ways, we foster self-reliance. We plan and develop healthy places, build financial wealth, clean up environmental hazards, and educate and train students and workers.

Our staff, board, and volunteers are social entrepreneurs that work with communities to blend local wisdom with the best thinking and evidence-based data across the country. At times that’s a messy process. But it’s the best way we know to succeed. The results are highlighted in this year’s Annual Report.

This year, I expanded my teaching load at the Keller Center at Princeton University, and the Isles leadership team of John Hart, Julia Taylor, Shenette Gray, and Peter Rose stepped up to lead on numerous fronts. We expanded our work on the ground. We shared lessons with others across the state and country. We developed webinars, case studies for the classroom, op-eds, and the first draft of Isles’ history.

This doing and thinking are possible because of organized people and diverse funds. That includes our volunteer board under Michele Minter’s leadership, our awesome staff, and supporters like you, who provide critical flexible funding.

This work is more important than ever, and we can’t do it without you.

Thanks for being there! Check out this year’s annual report, and let us know what you think.

In community,

Letter to the Editor: The challenge of lead in NJ

A recent cover article on NJBIZ highlights the challenge of lead in our water in NJ.

The problem is, 80% of the lead in kids’ bloodstreams comes from lead in dust, not water. My letter to the editor in response:

“Too many people think that the lead problem was solved decades ago, but a 2015 NJ Health Department study of lead poisoning revealed that in 13 places, mostly cities across NJ, a higher percentage of children had elevated levels of lead in their blood than children in Flint, Mich. Here in Trenton, the percentage was twice as high.

While lead in our water is an important threat, by far the most significant cause of lead poisoning in New Jersey comes from the dust of homes where lead from old paint makes its way into our kids’ bloodstreams. Of course, those in older neighborhoods carry the highest burden.

The good news is that we and others are working to understand the source of the toxic threat and low cost ways to make our homes and backyards safe. (This past year, we tested nearly 400 Trenton homes, and found that more than 70% have lead-based paint, while fewer than 10% had high lead levels in their water.) As a result, we believe that Trenton can become “Lead-Safe by 2027”.

This ambitious goal requires a consistent approach that combines public and private players, applying forward thinking policies that other cities across the country have proven effective, in addition to investments in testing and getting the lead out.

Thanks to NJBIZ for highlighting the lead threat, and we encourage you and your member businesses to join us and others who are tackling the source of 80% of the threat. Dust may not be as sexy as water, but its far more dangerous, especially to those that can least afford it, like kids and the elderly in older communities.

Experts tell us that a dollar invested now in lead safe home repairs will return at least $17, just down the road. We can help NJ’s budget problems by lowering the cost for special education, incarceration, health and social services and other public assistance simply by protecting children’s brains from lead’s damage.”

Book Review: Building on Bedrock

Today, my Princeton colleague Derek Lidow’s book on entrepreneurship, Building on Bedrock, was released. It’s worth the read! Here’s my review:

“Finally, the truth about entrepreneurship.

Derek Lidow methodically and entertainingly debunks the popular myths and magical thinking around successful entrepreneurs. If you think they need to take big risks, raise large amounts of money, innovate, be tech-savvy and “disrupt” industries, think again. Blending honest startup stories and current research, he exposes a vital but perhaps un-sexy reality: the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs ‘start small and grow as they gain confidence.’

His rare access to Sam Walton’s earliest hunches about Walmart is a fascinating tale of that iterative process.

Building On Bedrock is a book that challenges how entrepreneurs are taught, supported and mythologized. We need this more than ever, because our future depends on them.”

December 2017

It’s the holidays, and we strive to maintain our gratitude and deep appreciation for the season. But in the face of this mean-spirited Tax Bill, we could use a little help in planning for the year-end and New Year. Many expect it to bring far-reaching impacts that we still don’t understand, including $20B in reduced donations nationally in 2018 (because up to 30% fewer people will itemize deductions).

Without that financial incentive, will people donate less? Will they be more targeted with their donations? Should we do what universities and others are doing, and encourage people to give more by year end?

About 18% of Isles’ funding comes from individuals, and it is the most valuable, unrestricted revenues that we receive. It makes innovation, self-help and community-building work possible.

We are not your typical charity – we are an anchor institution that provides services and products (not “programs”) that families and individuals choose to use to move towards self-reliance. See the real impact on lives of those we serve in this 6 minute video. In addition, our 2017 highlights summarizes important work and why your unrestricted gift remains our lifeblood. It makes our work possible.  

These are unsettling times, but we greatly appreciate so many friends for your support and friendship. If you can, consider giving today at Thanks for being there. During these times, we need you more than ever!