2017 End of Year Update

These are crazy times. I could start by detailing the threats to our communities and the impact of proposed federal funding cuts on our work, but that’s not my message today.  Isles’ mission of fostering self-reliant families and healthy communities matters deeply, in good and challenging times. The way we achieve that mission – by working with thoughtful, courageous people, across boundaries of party, ethnicity, religion, or zip code – matters now more than ever. You make our work and our approach possible. 

Take, for example, the evolution of the new Social Profit Center at Mill One.  Some years ago, Isles started to run out of office and training space. Instead of simply looking for a bigger place, we asked deeper questions about our next move – the type of “what if” questions that define Isles’ efforts.

What if we could save an old historic building in danger of being demolished and land-filled?  What if we could design the project with leading energy and environmental technology and revitalize a community in need of reinvestment?  What if Isles and other social profit, environmental and arts organizations could co-locate, share affordable spaces, services and resources and find new ways to collaborate – far into the future? 

Could we bring all those benefits to one move?  The answer was yes.

Through a low-cost sale, we acquired the mostly empty, massive old Atlantic Products Mill.  It was audacious, risky and Isles’ largest project to date, requiring a multi-year capital campaign.  And that was just before the Recession of 2008. 

Our years of ambition and perseverance are paying off, as Isles prepares to move into the Center in early 2018, and we welcome organizations and artists to the new state-of-the-art historic mill. It will support Isles and 25+ other groups and help connect Trenton to the region for decades to come. 

What’s most important is this: Isles applies the same kind of holistic thinking that conceived of the Social Profit Center to all our work. Urban agriculture combines the benefits of fresh food, health, civic connections, beautification. Healthy housing makes homes energy efficient and less expensive, and improves the health, intelligence and behavior of children. Community planning and development strengthens social and physical assets in neighborhoods. Isles Youth Institute provides education, job training, life skills and local service projects. Isles Financial Solutions helps where employees take control over their financial lives, benefitting employers as well. These are all core ways that we meet our mission – to foster self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities.

As we learn, we increasingly help others – community leaders, policymakers, and educators – invest in communities.  We teach, broaden our impact, and maximize your investment in Isles.  

You make it possible for us to stay hopeful and plan for a healthier future.  Your unrestricted donation makes the biggest difference.  It is our life-blood – by far our most valuable funding.  

This holiday season, give a gift that will keep on giving. From our new Social Profit Center to so much more, we are not a typical organization, and we are only here because of like-minded people like you. 

We need you more than ever.

In community,


PS – Take a look at our 2017 Highlights!

A Message for our Supporters

Dear Friends,

Greetings! I’m pleased to share some good news about an upcoming residency at the Bellagio Center in Italy.

As you know, I currently split my time between Trenton and Princeton, where I teach social entrepreneurship in the Keller Center of the Engineering School.
As I work to bridge the divide between sustainable development practitioners and academics, I was asked to apply for a unique five week residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. I will be joined by 11 residents from around the world, including practitioners, artists, and academics, that work on sustainable development efforts.

While there, I will assemble case studies about Isles’ work for the classroom, and write the history of Isles. I look forward to this rate chance to spread the lessons learned over 36 years of Isles.

I leave on Oct. 23rd, after the upcoming Fall Fest, and I return early December. John, Julia and the rest of the management team at Isles will do a great job in my absence!

Feel free to reach out with questions or feedback before I go. You can get info on the residency here: https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/our-work/bellagio-center/residency-program/

In common + unity,


May 2017

Dear Friend, 

A few days ago, I sat down with an old friend who had just read Isles’ 2016 Annual Report.  “This is very impressive work,” he said, “but as a donor, I’m inundated by political fundraisers, organizations being threatened by political crises, and, oh yeah, big institutions like my college. “
In effect, he was asking, “What’s a caring person to do – invest in meeting ‘urgent’ needs, deeper systemic change, or ‘safer’ institutions?” 
You shouldn’t have to choose.
At Isles, we meet critical basic needs – like food, shelter, jobs, family financial health, toxin-free homes for kids, and education for high school students who had dropped out.  But we do it in ways that foster long-term, systemic change and self-reliance.
How?  We foster community and school gardens (75 sites this year, growing tens of thousands of pounds of food!); develop permanent homes and help families buy their first one or keep them from foreclosure; plan community revitalization alongside residents; test and remediate homes that poison kids, educate and train high school dropouts; and much more.
Beyond services that build self-reliance at the local level, we work upstream to change unhealthy systems. We work to improve regional food systems, promote regulations and approaches that streamline and simplify lead remediation work, and push for commonsense legislation to protect our children from environmental hazards, like requiring a lead-safe certificate upon sale of a home. And we’ve been doing this for 36 years, so we’ve developed the systems and technology to continually improve and measure our impacts, track multiple funding sources, collaborate with others, and learn.
As I told my friend, caring people should demand a lot from their donations and investments. As we navigate these shifting political winds, I trust that thoughtful people like you will continue to stand with us and change the world for the better. We can’t do this without you.

In community,

P.S. Check out our May e-newsletter highlighting recent and upcoming events here.

March 2017

Dear Friends,

The news from Washington, D.C. is unsettling for us too. Since we created Isles 36 years ago in the early days of the Reagan administration, we’ve weathered lots of changing political and economic winds. Still, some of you have asked, “how do today’s changes affect Isles and the places where we work?”

First, we’ve tried to minimize our reliance on public funding over the years by diversifying our funding sources. Today, about 25% of Isles’ work still relies on federal government sources, including departments of Labor, HUD, and the EPA.

Those sources fund the clean up of homes that saves kids and seniors from permanent lead poisoning. Their grants enable drop-outs to step back in through education and job training, and they support residents who reclaim and restore tough neighborhoods. (They are worth the investment. I live here, I know.)

These funds (along with the other 75% of our funding) support our mission to foster family self-reliance and healthy communities. They enable us to invest in and impact people and places too often outside the economic mainstream.

Second, if those investments don’t happen, we know this: the costs to society and to taxpayers grow a lot! More people will be sick, failing in school, part of the costly prison pipeline, and so on. That is very expensive. As a result, Isles’ work transcends right and left partisan thinking.

The federal impact on Isles and the community we serve is real, and we won’t know more until the ink dries later this spring on the Federal Budget. Until then, please know that we are committed to transparency and keeping you updated on impacts to our work.

More than ever, Isles stands as an anchor institution that helps neighbors and places persevere through uncertain times. We will rise above the stultifying pressures of the moment we are in and continue to serve, just as we’ve done for 36 years.

And that’s where you come in. Help us find ways forward by engaging and investing with us. Visit our work, tour our gardens, mentor or tutor our IYI students, or volunteer some time.

Your support keeps us optimistic and moving forward. Indeed, it makes Isles possible.

Thank you for being there.

In community,

February 2017

This month, the NJ Climate Adaptation Alliance Advisory Committee—of which I am a member—released a Climate and Health Profile Report as a draft. It outlines how climate change is expected to impact the health of New Jersey residents and recommends actions in order to minimize those effects.

Contributors to the draft include the New Jersey Society for Public Health Education, New Jersey Association of County and City Health Officials, New Jersey Association of Public Health Nurse Administrators, New Jersey Public Health Association, New Jersey Local Boards of Health Association, and New Jersey Environmental Health Association. All are invited to submit comments on the draft by March 17th 2017.

New Jersey’s “Climate and Health Profile Report” is the beginning of a much needed public health conversation about the impacts of climate change. Take a look at the report and join in the conversation.

January 2017

Back in 1994, Isles was rehabilitating old, vacant single family homes scattered across Trenton. Families that wanted to own their first home purchased these efficient, low-cost houses that helped stabilize families and communities.  

But while we redeveloped homes, another challenge and opportunity arose: young people kept knocking on the door of our job sites, asking for work. Isles’ construction manager David Styner would hire and train the young people and found that even if they had solid construction skills, too often they lacked a high school diploma.  

At the time, (and even up until today), nearly 40% of all freshman in Trenton High failed to graduate on time.  As a result, Isles developed the Isles Youth Institute (IYI) to blend the academic, vocational, and life skills that many young people need and want to succeed.  As they learn, they redevelop homes and parks in their communities, multiplying IYI benefits.

Today, IYI offers a caring, ‘tough love’ alternative training school for nearly 100 young people annually. Students learn to be more than workers–they are leaders against violence in their communities, participants in community and environmental work, and many go on to higher education.  

Isles’ mission is to foster self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities.  IYI keeps us honest to that goal and grounded in bringing real opportunities to young high school kids that once chose to leave school.  


P.S. Check out our January e-newsletter highlighting Isles Youth Institute here.

Fall 2016

As we head into the fall and into the depths of the election season (yikes!), I’m pleased to share this IslesWorks newsletter with you.  

We’re honored to be one of 77 organizations nationwide to recently receive a US Dept of Labor YouthBuild grant. Isles Youth Institute’s 21st class of students started this fall, giving us a chance to work with inspiring young people who, despite leaving high school, really want a high school diploma and much more.  

We also find creative ways to revitalize places in the region.  Even if they are temporary, some projects, like the parklet, show what is possible within the footprint of only one parking space in the city.  

Singer/songwriter Dar Williams helps us kick off a series of 35th anniversary events on October 29.  Dar is a kindred spirit and old friend, so we are really pleased she agreed to perform again for us.

Also, as part of our 35th year, we’ve reached out to 35 key people who have made a big impact on Isles over the years.  What a fun way to be reminded of all the strong shoulders we stand upon.

Finally, Amazon Smile offers a chance for you to make donations to Isles, just by buying stuff on Amazon.  Take a look at how you can help us for free!

Check out our fall enewsletter here

In community,

Building a Culture of Health is a Life or Death Matter in Trenton

It’s a quick drive up the Route 1 corridor from Trenton to Princeton, but when it comes to life-expectancy rates, the two communities are worlds apart.

People born and residing around the Princeton Junction train station can expect to see their 87th birthday, while children about 10 miles away, just south of the Trenton Train Station, are likely to only reach their 73rd birthday, on average. This reality was demonstrated visually in a new map released this week by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) depicting  the life expectancy for residents in several zip codes across Mercer County.

Where we live affects our health and well-being far more than most realize. In each community, there are a number of contributing factors, including : access to quality education, well-paying jobs, nutritious foods, places for physical activity, quality healthcare, child care, and affordable safe housing.

The Trenton area offers a prime example of the health disparities that often exist between a largely affluent, suburban community and a generally low-income, urban area in geographic proximity.

Our best chance at closing the life expectancy gaps that this map identifies will come from a collaboration of all sectors—business, education, community organizations you name it—to help build a culture of health in Trenton.

At Isles, Inc., we are focused on fostering self-reliant families by providing GED, vocational and life skills education. We also provide healthy fresh produce through our support of over 700 gardeners at 70 community and school gardens, yielding tens of thousands of dollars worth of produce a year. Collaborating with funders, community groups, and public officials, we continue to plan and develop real estate projects, including affordable housing, open spaces, and community facilities, to promote a healthier lifestyle in the neighborhood.

A mere 10 miles should not add up to a 14-year difference in life expectancy. Our future, and the future of our children and their children depend on each of us doing our part to create a culture that is focused on equity in access to the key factors affecting the health and longevity of our families.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to helping people be as healthy as they can be. Each community must chart its own course. The health of a neighborhood is shaped by a web of factors, and everyone has a role to play—from residents to policymakers.

To view the Trenton/Greater Mercer County Life Expectancy Map visit societyhealth.vcu.edu/maps. Follow the discussion on Twitter at #CloseHealthGaps.

Summer 2016

Dear Friends,

Should your zip code dictate your life expectancy? A recent study and map, created by Virginia Commonwealth University and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, exposes dramatic disparities even within the same county, like in NJ’s Mercer County. Life expectancy in Trenton’s 08619 area code is 73 years whereas 8 miles up the road in Princeton Junction, it’s 87 years.
Can we do anything about that? Of course. Isles develops innovative ways to make an impact by fostering both self reliance and healthy sustainable communities. 
But what’s making people sick? And is it personal behavior or the environment that drives theses disparities?
We believe the answer is both, and children are most at risk. One example is the presence of toxic lead in the environment in older neighborhoods. While the Flint debacle brings attention to a seemingly surprised nation, Isles has studied and worked to remove the persistent and toxic threat of lead for over a decade.
We’re confident that we can effectively remove the threat of lead to kids in the region within the next 20 years. 
By the way, the source of the toxin here in New Jersey, where 11 cities and towns have higher levels of lead in children than Flint, is dust, not water. If we address the dust problem, we can also reduce asthma. And if we can include the weatherization of homes at the same time, the benefits are even greater.
Finally, the heat of summer and the growing evidence of a warming planet remind us that we need climate-friendly, high-density cities to work. Otherwise, we are in deep trouble.
Isles is a ‘think and do’  tank that proves what’s possible. It is your support that makes this happen. For more info, check out our summer enewsletter here

Have a great summer.

In community,

Spring 2016

Dear Friends,

This past week, Isles turned 35. For me, it’s been a labor of love, allowing us to continually ask – and answer – one basic question, “What are the most powerful, low cost ways to develop self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities?” As you can see, we’ve settled on four key ways to do that: redevelop places and communities, build wealth, restore healthy environments, and educate and train residents. 

While this approach, by design, works with local communities or ‘isles’, we increasingly influence others as well. By learning from our successes and failures, we help governments and private groups impact their own communities beyond central New Jersey.

For example, we’ve learned how lead and other environmental hazards make homes the most dangerous places for kids, thousands of whom are permanently damaged annually in New Jersey. We’ve also learned to remove and seal out lead in homes that poison those kids. Over the past few years, we uniquely renovated over 170 homes for under $7,000/unit, rendering them safe and energy efficient at the same time. 

The debacle in Flint, Michigan brought media exposure and attention to our work (and its cost effectiveness). The result is a recent breakthrough in New Jersey: Governor Christie just committed $10 million to get more lead out of NJ homes. Our partners, the Housing & Community Development Network, New Jersey Citizen Action, the Anti-Poverty Network of NJ, and others collaborated to make this happen. 

In this case, we tested, learned, taught others, and advocated to earn this progress. But this meant we needed flexible funding, like that provided by the 300 institutions and 1,000 individuals who donated to Isles. That is why you are so important!

For more info, check out our recent newsletter/annual report here

Join the good work, help us celebrate 35 years of impact, and tell us what you think. 

In community,