October 2014 Update

It feels unsettling, at times, to be situated in one of the most educated, affluent regions in the wealthiest country, while living and working in its capital city – one of the 30 most distressed cities in America. Over the years, we have tried to bridge these worlds with integrity. Our job at Isles is to engage all these communities, and Princeton University increasingly helps us do that. They recently featured me and Isles in a Princeton Alumni Weekly article titled, The Good Neighbor. 

We are grateful for the interest and exposure to Isles’ work. Of course, it doesn’t capture the full breadth of the many hundreds of staff, volunteers, and leaders over the years who made this possible, but it’s a good start for the history books. Check out the article here.

One of our earliest efforts – community and school gardening – is discussed in this edition, along with an interview of Isles’ gardening manager and guru, Jim Simon.

With the holidays approaching, we hope you think about some gifts that will keep on giving, like a gift to Isles in the name of a loved one or family member.   


With gratitude and in community,


September 2014 Update

“When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.”

We use this ancient saying a lot around Isles Youth Institute.

But most people who talk about education – especially of underserved students – speak to the importance of great teachers, school buildings, curriculum, etc.

Of course, these are important. But the quiet secret of education is that it requires a student who wants to learn. So the big question is, “How do we create an environment that encourages students to want to learn?”

At IYI, we start each school year with Mental Toughness, a two-week period that tests whether each student is ready and interested in learning. This occurs in the city and out in a rural camp in Blairstown, New Jersey. The newsletter describes what occurred this past month at Mental Toughness.

This issue also highlights a long-time, passionate advocate of Isles, Barbara Coe. Barbara has been a great friend, trustee, and advisor over the years. We are grateful for her passion and roll-up-the-sleeves willingness to work.


With gratitude and in community,


August 2014 Update

A problem well defined is half-solved. This timeless adage seems especially true for developing communities. 

This summer, in just seven weeks, Isles, working with the Trenton Neighborhood Restoration Campaign and the City of Trenton, coordinated teams of community volunteers and Rutgers interns, mapped all of Trenton’s 31,000+ properties. The goal? To identify every vacant building and lot in the city and it’s condition.

Vacant, often decaying buildings impact safety, quality of life, and the economic and environmental health of the city and region – and there are thousands of such properties around Trenton.  The study will serve as a guide for the administration of Trenton’s new Mayor Jackson, as well as Isles, developers, and othes who need to know where the real problems – and opportunities – reside. 

This newsletter features this project and how it was completed in record-breaking time.  It’s an example of our “Learn, Do, Teach” approach to meeting our audacious mission. 

I am honored to introduce two new additions to our Executive team at Isles. John Hart, Chief Operating Officer, and Judy Nixon, Chief Financial Officer, joined Isles this summer.  You can learn why we are excited to work alongside them here.


With gratitude and in community,


March 2014 Update

As you might imagine, spring is a bustling time here at Isles – especially this year as we leave behind a punishing winter.  Nearly 60 (and growing!) community and school gardens are getting ready to plant, and our annual horse plow will be April 8th.  Isles’ list of spring gardening workshops and community events is here.

Our Center for Energy and Environmental Training (CEET) is beginning spring sessions.  Isles will have representatives at community health fairs to share information about Healthy Homes Assessments. 

Want to buy a home (or save one from foreclosure) this year?  Our Housing and Homeownership counselors offer a spring workshop and webinars.  Students at Isles Youth Institute are working in homes, parks, and other community service projects while preparing for graduation.

Isles’ 7th Annual Golf Outing is coming up, and a few foursomes are available.  Next month, look for our Annual islesWorks newsletter and 2013 financial summary. It was a good year, but only because so many of you stepped up to lend hands and hearts.

We can’t do this without you!

With gratitude and in community,


Sustainable Development: Rethinking Management of Development Organizations

Recently,  I was asked to give a talk at the United Nations.  Titled Sustainable Development: Rethinking Management of Development Organizations, you can read my comments below.  The talk will also be published by World Information Transfer in their World Ecology report.

Thank you Dr. Durbak. Good morning, it’s an honor to be here for the first time. For roughly 40 years in the United States, there have been community development organizations.  In UN parlance, these are NGO’s, Non-Governmental Organizations, engaged in development work in communities across the country. Up until the recession, there was about 3000 of these organizations, and several hundred of them have gone out of business since the recession. But this is an interesting moment in time to take a look back and see what their impact has been, how they’ve been managed, and how to bring this field to the next generation, which will  connect us to the health and environment issues of the conference today. A growing number of groups out there, including our own, are rethinking the way this has been done for all those years and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this.

So what’s been the results of those organizations across the country? The record is fairly mixed.  Some  organizations have done a very good job, but overall, these groups have primarily focused on housing. This means when you’re in the midst of a recession like the one we’ve just experienced and the land values get hit hard, those organizations get hit hard. It also means if they’re just addressing housing, that they’re not addressing some other critical community needs.. The notion of these communities as complex systems sort of flies in the face of organizations that focus on just housing, with the hope that broader redevelopment and revitalization will occur.   

Isles is an organization that builds homes,  and we seek to do it in places that matter. But we have a different mission.  Our mission isn’t to build homes for people who need it – our mission is to foster self-reliant families in healthy sustainable communities.  In effect, this nine word mission holds  two buckets, family self-reliance and healthy sustainable communities. So at the end of the day, at the end of the year, that’s what we care about. 

Over thirty two years we’ve asked one question, what is the most powerful cost effective way to get to our mission? Those things involve developing homes, parks,  urban agriculture, and more. We also offer services that foster self-reliance, like financial services for people who get into debt, education and job training, and other interesting financial products. We also work to train young people who have dropped out of school. In Trenton, for example, only 48% of the freshman that enter high school will graduate in four years. We have this enormous challenge of finding new ways to educate these young people who are enormously impactings our neighborhoods. We also are training them in construction trades.  For adults with a high school diploma, we have a green job training facility, targeting solar panel installations, environmental cleanup and energy efficiency work in buildings.

So why care about this stuff? Why care about urban areas and sustainability? Well, more than half the planet lives in cities. High density communities, like cities and older suburbs, have the lowest carbon footprint. Even the most energy efficient house out in the suburbs with a Prius, has a larger footprint than folks in the inner city that can walk back and forth to work, to schools, and to local stores. Unhealthy cities, especially in places like New Jersey, are driving sprawl. Families are fleeing these areas, and I’ll talk a little more about that flight. But that is gobbling up the open spaces and people are continuing to vote with their feet, moving out into places where it’s making it harder and harder to provide public transit and to deal with the sustainability issues long term. We also have an interesting political alignment that’s happening, which is families are fleeing the cities, moving into first ring suburbs, creating opportunity for both the first ring suburbs and inner cities populations to come together. It’s been an interesting thing to witness what has happened at the federal level, with the Obama administration, and where politics are aligning there around the suburbs and the critical nature of these swing districts. But for a variety of reasons, it’s important that we link the suburbs now with inner cities.

A quick glimpse of what’s going on in our town shows that, from 1940 to today, Trenton’s population has shrunken over 25%, while the suburbs have grown over 40%.. This is the picture of suburban sprawl, which we need to stop if we care about sustainability.  It’s bottoming out it seems, but that’s almost entirely due to international immigration.

Environmental threats to those that remain are very real.   In particular, by far the most dangerous place for a child to be, is in their home. We have tested roughly 3000 homes in the city of Trenton alone — about 12 % of the city’s total number of units.  This cross sampling includes  units that are in poor condition, as well as standard, middle class units. We found that roughly 66 percent are too poisonous for children to be in because of the lead and dust in the homes. Children aren’t getting poisoned by chewing on base boards,, they are victims of the piece of cheese, or banana falling on the floor or countertop. This is important because most think that I former industrial sites, or brownfields are dangerous, not homes. In the Trenton school system, roughly 38 % of all students are lead poisoned, so it’s impacting their IQ and behavior.

We also have heat islands, where the thermal mass, combined with the absence of vegetation, makes the sidewalkshotter by 10 to 12 degrees in some parts of the city at the same time. By overlaying a  map of vegetation, and a map of the poorest neighborhoods, you find that the poorest are the ones with the least vegetation and in turn, they are the hottest. The implications of that are perhaps self-evident for utility costs as well as behavior outcomes. We must find ways to cool cities.

We train young people in the construction trades while they obtain  a high school diploma.  In addition to academics and vocational training, students learn ife skills as they engage in housing and community development in their own neighborhoods.

You can’t talk about self-reliance without talking about money, and how to build assets. Isles   promotes savings accounts, home ownership, debt reduction and building family financial capability..

Isles’ Center for Energy and  Environmental Training (CEET)  works with employers to design green job training for unemployed,  under employed and incumbent workers. We also run a subsidiary, called E4, which trains and hires local residents who assess and renovate houses, making them energy efficient and healthy. Where it gets really interesting is when we can combine clean-up of houses, eliminating the lead threats, and  weatherize them  at the same time. The scopes of work are related enough that in a very cost effective way, we can impact lots of occupied homes that are underperforming and  threatening the occupants.  Finally we have an arm of the organization focused on community planning and development. We train residents and stakeholders to design master plans, asking questions like What should happen on our neighborhood both from a land use and social services perspective. We also use master planning as a way to train people to make decisions as a group, to understand that the loudest doesn’t win, to understand what the implications are for decision making long term and then to help implement plans once they’re made.

Green buildings and parks helps us reduce  long term operating costs for communities and increase the  quality of life for people – so they don’t have to flee. We’ve developed 500 homes in the city of Trenton, we’ve converted  former factory buildings into mix-use facilities, and we grow lots of food in  sixty school and community gardens. De-populated cities leave behind more vacant land,  creating the opportunity to grow tens of thousands of pounds of food, bringing important public health benefits, especially child health outcomes.

So how do you manage organizations to foster self-reliance rather than  taking care of poor people? How do you manage caring staff who really want to help, when that help can actually hurt the cause of self-reliance? These are not easy questions.  We need to create a culture  that provides services, products and tools that others choose to use and that foster self-reliance. Even our language is important.  We’ve tried to extricate the words program and clients from our lexicon We now use customers and products.  

We also talk about regional forces that undermine our local work, because you cannot address some of these problems by just working locally. We’ve founded a state-wide NGO called Building One New Jersey to organize at the suburban level allowing leaders in the suburbs to come together with leaders from the city to make decisions and address those regional forces at a regional level.

We have to be able to not just do stuff, because doing stuff is important, but the real magic here is in the learning, in the thinking process. We don’t typically get funded to think, we get funded to do things. Our job is to be as smart as we can while we are doing things, so we can manage data, manage contacts, (we use salesforce.com now), and integrate this thinking  across the organization and devisebetter success measures as a result.

Diverse funding matters a lot. In fact, the only way to retain integrity in this work is to not rely on one source of funding. Isles has 300 plus different institutional sources of funds and contributions, private and public. Less than half of our money comes from the public sector, and that enables us  to keep our eyes on the prize. We also have to think about economies of scope, not just economies of scale. We all understand that  if you increase your production, unit costs tend to go down. Economists understand that very well, but there is something else going on here. By operating these multiple services under one roof, we create  economies of scope. It’s a lot simpler to have one president, one administration, under one umbrella, and encourage  these diverse, self-help activities to bump into each other. This way we can learn how to integrate the health of the home with the energy efficiency of the homes and training local and young people in that process. It becomes much cheaper to do it this way, but we don’t understand it well enough. Our success measures will have to be better developed.

Finally, the role of the environment. It’s very important for us not to separate out critical issues, development, people who are in need from the critical issues of the environment. It allows us to not just improve health outcomes by taking away the environmental haphazard, but also allows us to connect up to the environmental community. Lastly, there are the key decision points. For us, we have to take ideas, what are the best ideas from around the world and around the country, and then figure out how to move those into developing services. Finally, what is our contribution to a broader change in agenda? Is it the technical assurance to others or the policy changes? I appreciate the opportunity to be here with you today, thanks a lot.


February 2014 Update

Isles fosters self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities.  Why families?  Because despite all the changes to the “family,” it is still our strongest social unit.  Our families enormously impact each of us and our neighborhoods – and they are strong predictors of whether or not we will live our lives in poverty. 

Working with youth who want to become successful, we have seen families both help – and hurt – their efforts. 

As a result, we recently added a range of Isles services for Isles Youth Institute family members. These services include  housing assistance,  healthy food access,  health care,  mental health care, job training and placement, and financial literacy and training.

Last month, we held a Family Health Night to introduce families to these new services and opportunities, like joining a community garden.  This islesWorks issue describes that expansion, and some of the energetic, quality staff, like Esther Brahmi, who keep their eyes on the prize – family self-reliance.

Finally, while it is easy to talk about self-reliance and sustainability, it is much tougher to manage an organization that works to bolster them.  Recently,  I was asked to give a talk at the United Nations on that topic titled, Sustainable Development: Rethinking Management of Development Organizations.  You can read my comments here.  The talk will also be published by World Information Transfer in their World Ecology report.

With gratitude, and in community,

Marty Johnson

January 2014 Update

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon Johnson spoke of waging an “unconditional war on poverty.”  This watershed moment has given rise to another kind of war – a war of pundits.  Some say we lost the war, so let’s just end it already, while others cite progress made by government soldiers.  They want to double down on the battle.
What gets lost is an authentic debate about the lessons of these 50 years.  From Isles’ perspective, neither the political left nor right has a lock on the truth.  We believe we are clearing a third path at Isles, one that meets basic human needs of all people, but always with an end goal of family self-reliance.  It is that focus on self-sufficiency that often gets lost in the culture of government and charity.
It is far easier to talk about this stuff than it is to do something about it.  At Isles, we have a toolbox full of self-help tools and information.  A key to self-reliance and healthy communities is in our homes.  For boundless reasons, they need to be safe and energy efficient.  How?   Isles E4 shows an innovative way that also strengthens our local economy.  
Finally, many thanks to our friends and supporters who helped make 2013 a great year for Isles.  Your many types of gifts enable us to ask tough, independent questions and answer them, in support of a seemingly audacious mission. 
For a peaceful and prosperous 2014, and in community,

Marty Johnson


December 2013 Update

In the classic holiday TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie is sent out to find a tree.  He searches out the tree most in need of care and, upon arriving home, others ridicule him, and he questions himself.  Out of this dark place, they find empathy, come together, and show what’s possible as a community.  They reconnect to that which is most meaningful.

Through our work at Isles, we get to experience this cycle a lot, especially this time of year. We feel lucky to be in a place where we are continually reminded of what is important.  And we work in community to make our “trees” – and yes, places – beautiful.  But this only works when others out there, like you, care enough too. 

So thank you to all our loyal donors and volunteers who have been here with us.  I particularly want to thank the special volunteers who have donated their time, wisdom, and wealth to serve on our board of trustees.  This month, five long serving trustees retire from the board as a result of term limits.  They include Tom Byrne, Rev. Karen Hernandez-Granzen, Liz Erickson, Manish Shah, and our chairman for the past three years, Steve Goodell.

If you see these good folks, thank them for caring.  But then really thank them for doing something about it.

Have a meaningful holiday season.  We deeply appreciate your friendship and support.


In community,  


November Update

With the holiday season approaching, we count our blessings.  This year we are particularly grateful for the chance to do the work that we love, in places that we also love.  We’ve learned a lot in 32 years, and we are grateful to bring that knowledge to some exciting projects for 2014.
We are especially grateful to our supporters who make this work possible!  Some of these friends have been close for decades.  One friend, Sean Zielenbach, is highlighted on our website.  I hope Sean’s story will inspire you this giving season.
In community, 


October Update

It is harvest time, and for many, that conjures up images of rural fields and full silos.  For us, that means city neighbors sharing their bounty with friends and family, canning and freezing produce to last through the winter, and sharing vegetables with emergency providers in the region, like the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.  Urban gardeners understand firsthand the impact of hunger on kids, the elderly, and neighbors here. 
This season, Isles’ network of school and community gardens has grown to record levels – 58 sites around the city and region.  Tens of thousands of pounds of vegetables are being harvested.  Riding through the city, you can see gardens tended by all types of cultures and ethnic groups:  Central Americans, African Americans from the south, Puerto Ricans, Russians, Jamaicans, Liberians, youth, Caucasians, Pakistanis, and so many more creating a United Nations- style harvest!
Bees pollinate plants – yes, even city plants.  Isles now has two beehives in the city, and the bees are happily performing their free pollination services.  Bees support agriculture in important ways, and since we are bringing agriculture to the city and suburbs, bees come along with us.  This is particularly important because of the global threat to bee populations.  We recently had our first harvest of honey! 
Next week, we celebrate the harvest with a Haunted Harvest 5K Run/Walk.  Help us celebrate this great time of year, get a bit more fit, and enjoy raising money for an important and “growing” tradition.
In community,