By: Dr. Michael Kaye

Fostering self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities in Trenton, NJ.

Marty Johnson attended an inner city high school in Akron, Ohio, where he played football. A combination of talent, hard work, financial need, and ultimately, a full football-supported scholarship offer from Princeton University changed his life – and, as we’ll see, the lives of many others.

As a Cultural Anthropology major, Marty spent his Junior year in northeast Brazil, studying the impact of an industrial seaport complex planned for an area called, Suape, one of the most beautiful estuaries in the world. In this almost utopian fishing village, the US, Japan, and France were helping the Brazilian government plan a massive redevelopment effort.

Princeton’s Anthropology Department wanted to understand the social structure of this fishing village. Marty was looking at the degree to which this village would be obliterated by the redevelopment project in the name of fighting poverty. During Marty’s thesis work on this project, he began to ask, “Is there a better way to do development in places that are outside of the economic mainstream – a way that will protect or restore rather than destroy the environment?”

From questions like these, Marty and a few of his fellow students decided to create an organization that might serve such a dual function (1) to foster development where it is needed and (2) do it in an environmentally sound way.

Isles is Formed

The Isles founders believed that by working at the community level, even in places deemed poor, groups could employ assets such as local labor, wisdom, tradition, history, even vacant land and buildings to promote culturally appropriate development. In fact, the name Isles, is a metaphor for “community-based islands of development.”

Due to close proximity and relationships with Trenton, NJ, Isles moved to Trenton shortly after its inception, 29 years ago. Marty had no misgivings about choosing his dream and very little income after leaving Princeton. He and his colleagues were building the Isles organization gradually over time, learning what they could along the way.

For the last 29 years, Isles has evolved its mission down to nine words: “To foster self-reliant families in healthy, sustainable communities.” In practice, they are driven by a single question: what are the most powerful, yet cost-effective ways to achieve that mission? The result is the creation of a unique blend of services (or business lines) coordinated under one roof. They include:

Community Planning and Research

Housing and Real Estate

Youth Training and Education

Financial Self-Reliance

Environment and Community Health

Energy and Green Job Training

Isles formula is this: find what works through trial and error and research, offer technical and organizing services to community groups and individuals that want them, measure success, and get out of the way. In this sense, sustainability means self-sufficient people in healthy communities. Given this goal and limited funds, Isles looks for low input, high return kinds of activities.

“Communities are complex, and we want to be systemic,” says Marty. “So we’ve learned that our services should be diverse, and in key ways mimic the complexity of the places we serve. We think about the economies of scope in our work, not just the economies that come with increasing the scale of outputs.” For example, families can learn to work with their neighbor and grow their own food in a community garden. They then learn about other ways to improve their community, like fixing vacant homes, starting and supporting local businesses, receiving green job training. With this structure, it makes it easy for those motivated to succeed. Isles’ experience is that this is more powerful, cheaper, and respectful of the capacity of people to control their destinies than typical, specialized “programs”.

Isles uses counselors and mentors, both paid and volunteer, for their alternative high school, green job training, and micro-business services. Participants also help each other. Isles uses volunteers when they can enhance, rather than undermine, local self-reliance.

Marty shared a story of a young man, who experienced a difficult upbringing and a jail sentence. At the age of 18, a criminal judge offered him one last shot at staying out of prison – he would attend Isles’ Youthbuild Institute – a tough love, alternative high school. He learned various building trades, earned his high school diploma and was then hired to work on Isles construction crews. He later received specialized green job training through Isles, where he passed the Energy Efficiency Assistant certification. The local utility company, expanding their building efficiency activities in inner cities, recently hired this talented fellow and dozens more for their new ventures.

To maintain this diverse, but connected scope of services, roughly half of Isles’ funding comes from over 250 private institutional sources and 1000 individuals. The other half comes from the public sector (local, county, state, and federal). “This diversity is key to maintaining an independent focus on our mission and avoid funder-driven mission creep,” says Marty.

Looking Forward

To position the organization for the future, a 240,000 sq ft abandoned former textile mill is being transformed into a mixed-use village to include consolidated offices, training center, non-profit center, a for-profit business incubator, and housing. Ground-breaking is anticipated in June. Further demonstrating their commitment to sustainability, Isles is designing their new village to meet LEED Platinum certification for sustainability. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and Platinum certification signifies the highest levels of sustainability currently scored by the US Green Building Council.

Isles’ new headquarters will allow it to pivot off the 29 years of on-the-ground learning and help others – including policymakers – learn from their experience. “Others shouldn’t have to go 29 years before they figure out how to save taxpayer and others’ money through these types of services,” says Marty. To do that, Isles must learn to develop research and educational curricula, and learn to teach others, not just perform on the ground. Thanks to the success of Isles, Marty, and his dedicated colleagues, one hopes that no community is an island any more.

To learn more about Isles in Trenton, NJ, or to volunteer, please visit their web site at, or call:

Main office: 609.341.4700
Isles’ YouthBuild Institute: 609.341.4712
Center for Energy and Environmental Training: 609.341.4746
Financial Self-Reliance Department: 609.341.4789
Real Estate Development Department: 609.341.4706

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