September Update

We face many challenges in the Trenton region that directly link to each other:  high unemployment, soaring dropout rates, record homicides, expensive police and prison costs, fractured communities, and more.  In 1995, Isles organized an innovative response to these threats and called it Isles YouthBuild Institute – until now.  With the introduction of YouthCorps and family based services, we changed the name to Isles Youth Institute (IYI).  Since its inception, we have offered 900+ high school dropouts the chance to earn a diploma, obtain vital life skills, learn construction basics, and rebuild vacant homes and open spaces in their own communities.
  
This fall, IYI is in an exciting phase of growth and transition, so this newsletter highlights that part of Isles which targets challenged youth and their families.  Let us know what you think.  Really.
  
In community, 
  
Marty Johnson

August Update

Greetings!
 
This summer, the news in Trenton seems focused on violence and disorder. It’s important to view our challenges through clear lenses – the annual murder record will be set soon, and it’s only August – but it’s also important to see the good work and positive news.  The Trenton region has strong groups and leaders with integrity that, like us, live and work here.  We choose to be here, investing in places and people with thoughtfulness and yes, high expectations for the long haul.  Isles is one of numerous groups that collaborate across the region to see meaningful change happen.
  
They may not get the media coverage, but these collaborations are evident all across the city and county.  You can see them building 50 community gardens and beautifying the Princeton landscapes of Morven Museum & Garden and Drumthwacket.  Working with residents and other organizations, Isles and volunteers have created lush oases and beautiful art in Trenton, while encouraging young people to learn and grow outside the city.  At the same time, volunteers gain new skills and knowledge, and the landscapes of the county become more beautiful.
  
 Enjoy the rest of the summer and keep your eyes on the prize – not just the challenges we face.
  
In community, 
 
Marty

July Update

Greetings!
 
Since our goal is to help make challenged urban places more self-reliant and healthy, we always ask, “What’s getting in the way?”  After years of research and testing, we found one surprising answer: our homes.  They are making us sick.
 
The presence of lead in homes is poisoning thousands of kids.  Other home hazards trigger asthma and have driven nearly epidemic levels of asthma in the city.  As science becomes more aware of the real costs and impacts of these hazards, we have worked to find low-cost ways to identify and clean up homes.  
 
One important effort is training local residents, contractors, visiting nurses, and others that enter homes on a regular basis through Isles’ Healthy Homes course.  They can help identify the hazards and give tools to the residents of the homes to protect themselves. This summer, we’re expanding our Healthy Homes impact by collaborating with Mercer Street Friends, a nonprofit that runs a Visiting Nurses program, to train a cadre of home assessors to go out into the community and help mitigate these threats.
 
As always, we’re grateful to our community partners and all those that help us keep our eyes on the prize and act with thoughtful urgency.
 
 
In Community, 

Marty 

May Update

Recently, Isles was introduced to Felicia, an Isles Home Buyer Workshop participant who will buy her first home this month. Her new place is a formerly vacant, now beautifully restored, affordable and energy efficient 120 year-old home on Stockton Street in Trenton. And she’s excited.
 
But didn’t we just learn from the recession that homeownership can hurt working families?
 
The answer to that is yes. But if we are smart, this can be a great time to buy a home. If we provide quality homes that cost little to operate in places that are stable, with good low cost mortgages to prepared buyers, then the benefits of homeownership become clear – for buyers and the entire community. 
 
Isles’ goal is self-reliance, and homeownership can offer both stability and ‘forced savings’, both key to building self-sufficiency. To be successful, new homeowners benefit from housing and budget counseling and workshops. Since 2003, Isles has counseled and trained more than 1,500 prospective home buyers. 
 
Homeowners create more stakeholders in a community, if the conditions are right. The magic is in knowing those conditions. Having 32 years of experience really helps.

In community, 

Marty

June Update

June is always a powerful month. The gardens are looking great, construction is in full gear, and we have the honor of witnessing Isles YouthBuild Institute (IYI) students graduate and begin the next phase of their lives. 
 
These students make us proud, both because of where they have come from and now where they are going. Their challenges have been awesome – a number were homeless, with deep family health issues. A number were incarcerated, gang-connected, and on the way to a life in prison. Others have been abused. Nearly all had dropped out of high school. 
 
For them, it seems obvious that traditional classroom settings will not work. Here at IYI, these 18 young men and women have overcome many obstacles to earn a diploma and found a last chance to learn how to learn, be employed, and self-reliant. They’ve learned to be accountable to each other and themselves, and to be responsible to their community. They’ve built sound relationships with friends, mentors, and staff. And, they have earned self-respect. 
 
But the ‘proof is in the pudding’, as they say. One YouthBuild graduate, Lamar Allen, works for Princeton University’s dining services. Working with Isles Financial Solutions services being offered at Princeton University, he plans to buy a house this summer!
 
Marty

 

March Update

Spring is on its way, and soil is being turned in neighborhood and school gardens around the region. When we started Trenton’s first community garden in 1981, we didn’t know how the “grow your own” movement would, well, grow. 
 
The benefits are now clear – you can eat better, cleaner food, save money, improve the environment and most importantly, build community through gardens.   Recently, Isles embarked upon a statewide study of the potential for more urban agriculture and what our role might be in furthering this movement. Funded by the Rita Allen Foundation, the study will be released in a few weeks. 
 
Many have heard about food “deserts,” where quality produce is unavailable or expensive at local delis or corner stores in lower income neighborhoods. (This is a good example of how expensive it really is to be poor!). One additional finding is that healthier food is not just an access issue – consumers must demand it, buy good food, and know how to prepare it.  As a result, Isles invests in education and changing the culture of food in the region. 
 
As the adage goes, “many hands make light work” and springtime brings out many corporate partners and volunteers for which we are thankful. Helping out in gardens that need extra hands, volunteers often leave feeling physically satisfied and enriched by the experience of working and learning alongside local gardeners and their families. Yes, there is lots of good news in Trenton!
  
In Community

Marty

 

February Update

Four years ago, the State of New Jersey had just completed a new Energy Master Plan, and they were gearing up for big investments in green energy. Given Isles’ mission, we wanted to assure that some of the new jobs in this field went to underemployed folks who needed them the most. After years of running Isles YouthBuild Institute serving young people wanting high school diplomas and job training, we created the Center for Energy and Environmental Training (CEET). CEET could also train and help place adults that already had high school diplomas. 
 
The result: CEET has impacted the environment, increased jobs and incomes, and saved money for families living in drafty old homes. This is a great example of how a good idea can be turned into an entrepreneurial startup that innovates and impacts thousands of others.  CEET’s success can be attributed to good people working hard, asking the right questions, and engaging other funders, friends, and supporters who care about the same things. CEET could not have succeeded without readers and donors like you. 
 
I hope you enjoy this newsletter. CEET and other elements of our work should be replicated in settings throughout the country. As we finish our work on our new Strategic Plan for the next four years, we will expand our ability to make that replication both possible and likely. We couldn’t do it without you. 
 
In Community,

 

January Update

As we welcome 2013, I am optimistic. This is despite the unpredictability of Washington, the economy’s slow growth, and other challenges. This optimism is partly based on a strong 2012, when learning and development here at Isles helped us set an exciting foundation for 2013. 
 
This month, we highlight the challenges and opportunities for energy work at Isles. It is winter, and way too many older homes are heating the sidewalks and the outdoors. Thousands of low-income homes are costly, polluting energy hogs. So what can we do about it? At Isles, we train local residents to perform energy audits and retrofits. We also set up E4, a subsidiary designed to retrofit older homes throughout the county and region. This way, we can train, employ, and build wealth for workers. In addition, households save energy costs, improve the comfort of their homes, and reduce their carbon footprint. 
 
As in all of Isles’ work, we strive to bring strong benefits at a low cost to those that need it most – including the environment. I’d love to hear your feedback on our work and our new website. 
 
In Community,

Marty

December Update

In The Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has the good fortune to experience a realistic dream. Most of us don’t have dreams that are quite that vivid, so we have to think about our future while we are awake.
 
In the midst of the world’s craziness, I am reminded that life is really short, and we should plan now for how we want to be remembered.   As we move into a new year, we are excited by the possibilities and humbled (and a bit unsettled) by the deep challenges that confront us and the communities where we live and work. What I am so grateful for though, is to wake in the morning and know that our day’s work makes a real difference. Your support makes that possible. Thank you for being there and for considering a gift of self-reliance this holiday season.
 
We hope your dream and awake states bring meaning and happiness this holiday season!  

In Community, 

Marty

 

CEO Corner: Thinking Like a Mountain

Dear Friends,

Now  is  a good time to reflect on all of the staff, board, friends and supporters that make our self-sufficiency work possible.  This holiday season, we are particularly grateful.

Sometimes, that support comes from unexpected places. Recently, I was honored to receive the Community Leadership Award from the Princeton Chamber of Commerce.  It made me think about what  it means to be a good leader – in community, business or government. 

The world is changing so rapidly.  Tom Friedman called it flattening, others say its shrinking, more diverse, and clearly interdependent.  Climate change, telecom, global economics and the browning of America connect and impact us, whether we like it or not. 

My training was in cultural anthropology.  Anthropologists remind us that, for thousands of years, we’ve grown hard-wired to take care of our own – our tribe, our people.  So when that “protect our own” bias bumps up against the new world forces coming from the outside, some leaders dig in, or freeze.  Good leaders learn to look in both directions – inward and outward at the same time – an essential balancing act.  They learn to connect with those that don’t share their cultural context, or look like them.  They see opportunity in both chaos and order.

When I was 16, my family experienced a lot of turmoil. Our home was foreclosed on, and my mother was seriously ill.  The experience of losing our home and living on the edge impacted me, and my family, in a deep way.  We lived through chaos, but I didn’t want to be labeled or pitied.  I wanted to be treated as still capable, and with dignity. With a little help, we’ll be fine.

The football coaches from Princeton University came to my school, and suggested I apply.  With empty pockets, I arrived on Princeton’s campus.  As a white guy, I could cut my hair and look like I fit.  These experiences, and the anthropology training that came with it, helped me to become an adaptive leader and created my touch point for Isles – how did I want to be treated?  How should those struggling be treated?

So what does this mean for Isles?  We didn’t create programs that take care of poor people (even though those programs are often helpful). We developed  training and services that people could choose in support of their own self-reliance.  This is true even with young people who were locked up and dropped out.  And we build beautiful, energy efficient buildings that support self-reliant families.

Isles is asking tough questions about long term impacts, but this is not theory.  We practice our way to our audacious mission.  But we can only succeed with the community behind us.  Although most people have deep doubts – and  polls support this –  about whether anything can be done to help challenged communities, don’t fall into that trap.  Come visit and see for yourself.  It might help your self-reliance.

In community,

Marty Johnson

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