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A 38 year old, Trenton-based nonprofit that fosters self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities.

Archived Updates

Title 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,


Post date: 2019-03-01
Nid: 596
Title 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,


Post date: 2018-12-01
Nid: 595
Title 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

Post date: 2018-11-20
Nid: 582
Title 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.

Post date: 2018-06-11
Nid: 557
Title 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,


Post date: 2018-05-14
Nid: 552
Title 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,

Post date: 2018-03-26
Nid: 538
Title 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."

Post date: 2018-01-23
Nid: 523
Title 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.”

Post date: 2018-01-23
Nid: 522
Title 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!


Post date: 2017-12-22
Nid: 519
Title 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!

Post date: 2017-11-22
Nid: 516
Title 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:

In common + unity,


Post date: 2017-10-17
Nid: 505
Title 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.

Post date: 2017-05-22
Nid: 482
Title 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,

Post date: 2017-03-15
Nid: 459
Title 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.

Post date: 2017-02-27
Nid: 458
Title 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.

Post date: 2017-01-20
Nid: 446
Title 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,

Post date: 2016-11-29
Nid: 436
Title 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 Follow the discussion on Twitter at #CloseHealthGaps.

Post date: 2016-08-30
Nid: 425
Title 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,

Post date: 2016-07-25
Nid: 418
Title 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,                                                                                      

Post date: 2016-04-26
Nid: 408
Title September Update

Dear Friends,

The best kept secret to education is... someone  chooses to learn.

At Isles Youth Institute, a new crop of 70 young people, mostly 17-20 year olds who have struggled in and dropped out of typical classroom settings, begin their education anew this week.

To make sure they are ready, Isles created a Mental Toughness Period to test and further their readiness.

We look for each student's ability to be part of a team, resolve conflicts, and willingness to do what it takes to get a high school equivalency degree.

This is not a typical 'Back to School' training.  But then again, these are talented young people who have decided to drop out at least once before.  So we don't think that "typical" works very well for them.  Or for us.

One challenge the youth face is the intensity of the violence on Trenton's streets.  Some of the students suffer from PTSD, but all of them have the capacity to be peacemakers in their communities.  Isles works to create safe havens like gardens and parks, safe families through training and counseling, and safe tools like education, job training, and support for gang leaders looking for a better life.

This puts us in the middle of the anti-violence (or pro-peace) challenges in the city.

The benefits of this work are enormous, to families, communities and places.  We know Isles saves taxpayers and others money by helping young people avoid prison, find and keep jobs, and serve as role models on the streets while families enjoy cleaner and greener communities. We continue to try to better quantify the impact of our work.

For now, we can say that we make these benefits happen with very little funding.  While government seems all too interested in funding prisons, and the expensive pipeline that leads to them, we find innovative ways to prevent those costs up front.

And we rely on folks like you to help us fund the work.

In community,



Post date: 2015-10-07
Nid: 364
Title August Update

Dear Friends,

The research is increasingly clear, but it's not news to us: a green, more natural environment affects our physical and mental health and the health of our communities.

This is particularly true in cities. Over the decades, Isles has partnered with communities to create green, safe spaces - parks, gardens and buildings - that are fun, productive, energy-efficient, and natural.

This newsletter highlights some of our place-making work in the Trenton region, but our work goes beyond the on-the-ground development described here.  

Isles is interested in learning and teaching others about, "what works and why?" As a result, in September, I will set aside 50% of my time to be a one-year visiting professor at Princeton University's Engineering School to teach entrepreneurship from a "social profit" perspective.

John Hart, Isles Chief Operating Officer, will handle some of my CEO responsibilities, and Isles' Julia Taylor will assume some COO-like functions. Look for upcoming e-newsletter messages from them, as well as other guest writers. 

This is how we bring our agenda to a wider audience, so we need your help and friendship more than ever!

Thanks for being there.

In community,



Post date: 2015-08-13
Nid: 356
Title A Tribute to Pat Donohue

You can tell a lot about a guy by playing basketball with him. It was many years ago, but I really met Pat Donohue on a hoops court. He was fearless.

With his small, 5’7” frame, he would take it right at the big guys underneath. He wasn’t just courageous – he was also talented. From the first game, I wanted him on my team!

Pat brought those attributes to everything he did. He jumped in the mix, took risks, and didn’t back down, even when he lacked the “size” of his competitors. Lucky for us, his teammates, Pat took good care of us.  He was always there for the team, and positive. 

The day Pat died, he and I discussed the positive gains of the past 9 years.  For a few months, we’d been exploring, with others, ways to bring his campus-community lessons to a larger regional scale. This time, we’d do it from a more community-grounded perspective.

But we also discussed hard stuff – why institutions resist change, and how painful and lonely it can be when you put yourself out there, trying to make change happen.

I remain haunted by that discussion, wondering what more could have been done.  I will be forever grateful though, that my very last words with him were about an op-ed we would write, sharing with the public the extraordinary accomplishments of his past 9 years.  His work fundamentally altered the ways we think about how colleges and communities can mutually benefit from each other.  

Of course Pat wants us to forge ahead, and we will.  But how I miss my teammate.  

~ Marty


Post date: 2015-07-21
Nid: 351
Title June 2015 CEO Corner
On June 23rd, we celebrate the 20th Isles Youth Institute graduation! I fondly remember the decision, just over 21 years ago, to create Isles' YouthBuild, where disconnected 16-24 year olds can grow, learn construction skills, earn a high school degree and renovate homes in the city. 

Over 1,000 students have benefited from IYI. From the beginning, we believed that the secret to success would be the students themselves, who would take ownership over their own future, and responsibility for their own choices. As a result, we constantly quote an old saying, "When the student is ready, the teacher arrives."

IYI is a place that challenges, supports, and involves young people and their families. We offer wise, effective teachers for that moment when students choose to learn. 

The lessons of IYI, in the classroom, at job sites, or on the many field trips they take, are designed to last. Students learn that they are part of a caring group of thoughtful people that is bigger than any of us. 
As our graduates step into the world, future students will take their place.  When these students are ready, this year's graduates will be the teachers who arrive.
Post date: 2015-07-08
Nid: 348
Title May 2015 CEO Corner

May is almost over and it's tempting to highlight the 60+ gardens, real estate construction, the busy-ness of the season, etc. 

However, doing good work is important, and as we say around here, the "magic" is in the learning (and increasingly in the teaching). As we learn by doing, we then must share that with others. For example, our innovative work on child lead poisoning has positioned Isles to show what we've learned, and impact public policy. With our work in the THDC neighborhood in the North and West Wards of Trenton, we are supporting other important groups, like the Urban Mental Health Alliance. 

Finally, we celebrate another elder and mentor who has passed away - Louise Rolling. How lucky we are to stand on the shoulders of such good friends who make this work possible!

Post date: 2015-06-05
Nid: 345
Title March 2015 CEO Corner

On April 11th, Isles turns 34. Over those years, we've steadily built the capacity to foster sustainable development across the region. 

But of course, we can't - and would never try - to do it alone. As our name suggests, Isles provides a range of help to local community-based groups (or "isles"). They are the glue that keeps development moving forward. 

As a result, Isles is increasingly providing strategic grants to build the capacity of grassroots groups. This newsletter describes one of those efforts, with the Trenton Historic Development Collaborative. 

Isles' 8th Annual Golf Outing takes place at the Cherry Valley Country Club on June 1. Join us if you can, or find other ways to get involved. We can't do this work without you!

Post date: 2015-04-01
Nid: 327
Title February 2015 CEO Corner

Here in New Jersey, it's been cold. Take a moment to imagine those who live in substandard housing. Thousands of friends and neighbors live in leaky, drafty homes that are expensive to heat! For years, Isles has worked to develop low-cost ways to retrofit homes for energy efficiency, while also remediating the lead poisoning and asthma triggers at the same time.


Finally, we are poised to help others learn these techniques across the state. Working with PSEG and other partners, this work requires keen attention to details. This is where Isles' Peter Rose excels.


As Managing Director of Isles Community Enterprises, Peter has been with Isles since 2006. We are lucky to have talent like this at Isles. 


Read about REHEET and Peter Rose here. 

Post date: 2015-03-04
Nid: 324
Title January 2015 CEO Corner

As we head into the new year, we take stock of the accomplishments of the past year...but not for long. We expect 2015 to be even more transformational.


Part of that change includes new leaders at the Isles board level.  We are grateful to Dr. Ann Marie Senior, who chaired Isles' board in 2014. Her term limits are up and we welcome Michele Minter to the role of Chair. Michele has served 2 years on the Isles' board and as you can tell from the article below, she is the right leader at the right time.


Other new board members include Rolando Torres, Tracey Syphax, Rachel Cogsville-Lattimer, Ian Goldstein, Tom Sullivan, and Kathy Fitzpatrick. This is a diverse and strong class of new trustees!


As you know, we care most about family self-reliance. As a result, Isles Financial Solutions (IFS) helps families become more financially healthy and build wealth. The IFS article below shows how we do that for nonprofit and for profit employees, employers, and clients. Princeton University, restaurant chains, Womanspace, and others are getting results. If you are interested for your business, let us know.


Stay tuned for exciting announcements in the months ahead. 


Thank you for your interest and support.

Post date: 2015-01-26
Nid: 318
Title December 2014 Update

Holiday greetings! 

This year, my holiday message is a simple one: take a look at the staff photo below, taken a few days ago at our Holiday party. I don't tell them this nearly enough, but these are the faces of extraordinary, inspirational  people who bring diverse perspectives and talents to Isles' audacious mission. They work really hard to make innovative things happen, in places where it matters most, with modest financial compensation.

How lucky I am to be part of this team!   

We are also grateful for all our loyal donors and volunteers, particularly those who donate their time, wisdom, and wealth to serve on our board of trustees.  Five trustees retired from the board this year: Frances Blanco, Henry Von Kohorn, Jacque Howard, Michael Dundas and Ann Marie Senior, our outgoing chairwoman.  (Next month, I'll share the six new trustees who are joining Isles in 2015.)

If you see these good folks, staff or board, thank them for caring.  But then give them a hug for doing important things that matter - every day.

We deeply appreciate your friendship and support.  But this only works when others out there, like you, care enough too. 

May your gifts last a lifetime this holiday season. 

Post date: 2015-01-14
Nid: 315
Title Bill Scheide, 1914-2014

Isles' friend, advocate, and donor Bill Scheide passed away on November 14, shortly before his 101st birthday. Bill was a Renaissance man. World class musician, arts collector, philanthropist, civil rights supporter, and anti-poverty advocate, his impact reached back many decades and across the country.   

Bill's quiet but powerful voice for civil rights began when a young lawyer, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, asked Bill if he would support a case called Brown vs. Board of Education. Bill Scheide would become a primary funder of the case that desegregated U.S. public schools, and  he served as a member of the NAACP LDF Board ever since. 

Ironically, an earlier Trenton case was critical to Marshall's landmark Brown v. Board legal strategy. In 1943, two mothers, Berline Williams and Gladys Hedgepeth, were outraged that their 12 year old children could not attend the new school built in their neighborhood because they were black. They filed a lawsuit against the Trenton Board of Education with a simple demand: let their children attend the same school as the white children.

In January 31, 1944, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled "It is unlawful for boards of education to exclude children from any public school on the grounds that they are of the Negro race."  
A few years later, Brown v. Board of Education overturned the doctrine of "Separate but Equal" across the land.

Three years ago at our 30th Anniversary, Isles honored the Scheides and Williams families, introducing them to each other for the first time.  That emotional meeting closed the loop on one of the most far reaching but little known partnerships between Trenton and Princeton. 

In her comments that night, Judy Scheide spoke of Bill's vision for an "enlightened community."  We are grateful that his vision included support for Isles.

Eight years ago, Isles was the beneficiary of Bill's first orchestral birthday party. What a treat it was to watch his childlike love for the music, especially when combined with a cause that he was passionate about. 

We were witnesses to a man (nay, a couple) that bent the arc of history towards justice, in unusually disarming and youthful ways.  What an honor to have called Bill a friend.



Post date: 2014-12-04
Nid: 308
Title November 2014 Update

Thanksgiving, perhaps our most important holiday, was not always a holiday. Luckily for us, a small group of determined people spent many years advocating for it. Their leader was Sarah Josepha Hale (author of Mary Had A Little Lamb).

Born in 1788 to parents who believed girls should be educated too, she was taught at home and became a writer and poet.  Her book about slavery titled A Tale of New England, held that while slavery hurts and dehumanizes slaves absolutely, it also dehumanizes the masters and retards the progress of their world.  We are all connected.


Sarah also spent over 17 years trying to convince presidents to create Thanksgiving, until President Abe Lincoln responded to her advocacy in 1863.  He liked the idea but had an additional motive - he hoped that a national holiday of thanks might unite the country in the midst of war.


Sarah's story is an important example of what can happen - indeed what does happen all the time.  When once-marginalized people receive education, teach themselves, and benefit from a support system that helps them dodge the arrows of the status quo, great things happen!  And for that, we at Isles give thanks.



With gratitude and in community,



Post date: 2014-12-04
Nid: 307
Title 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,


Post date: 2014-10-24
Nid: 301
Title 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,


Post date: 2014-09-09
Nid: 285
Title 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,


Post date: 2014-08-01
Nid: 300
Title 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,


Post date: 2014-04-15
Nid: 267
Title 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 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.


Post date: 2014-02-20
Nid: 262
Title 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

Post date: 2014-02-01
Nid: 263
Title 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


Post date: 2014-01-28
Nid: 253
Title 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,  


Post date: 2013-12-18
Nid: 240
Title 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, 


Post date: 2013-11-26
Nid: 234
Title 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, 


Post date: 2013-10-22
Nid: 231
Title 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

Post date: 2013-09-24
Nid: 220
Title August Update

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, 

Post date: 2013-09-11
Nid: 210
Title July Update

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, 


Post date: 2013-09-11
Nid: 209
Title 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, 


Post date: 2013-08-01
Nid: 189
Title 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!


Post date: 2013-07-01
Nid: 195
Title 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



Post date: 2013-03-01
Nid: 186
Title 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,


Post date: 2013-02-01
Nid: 185
Title 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,


Post date: 2013-01-01
Nid: 184
Title 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, 



Post date: 2012-12-01
Nid: 183
Title 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

Follow Marty on twitter!

Post date: 2012-11-12
Nid: 7
Title November Update

It is time to give thanks for the harvest, and we have much to be thankful for.  Our life and work in challenged communities reminds us each day of how lucky we are.
But we are most grateful for being able to do something about those challenges.
This season, when you receive an appeal for a donation from Isles, please think deeply about your connection to others less fortunate - and give generously.
Be a part of the change.
Happy Thanksgiving,



Post date: 2012-11-01
Nid: 182