Sometimes listening is what matters. Scott McVay, the founding, 25-year executive director of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, realizes this as he thinks back to his first meeting with Marty Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Isles Inc. Johnson and two of his Princeton University classmates were presenting their idea about an organization that would promote development while improving the environment. “They were sounding us out on an idea,” McVay recalls. “The other two chaps were quite voluble and talkative and Marty, as I recall, said nothing.”
But it turned out that the “silent partner” was in it for the long haul, 25 years worth to date, and the more loquacious guys soon moved on to other endeavors. “Being a good listener is often a mark of good leadership,” says McVay, hitting upon what has motivated the growth of the Isles from a $10,000 startup to a mature Trenton-based nonprofit with an annual budget of over $4 million to pursue its nine-word mission: “To foster more self-reliant families in healthy, sustainable communities.”
Isles will celebrate its 25th anniversary at a gala on Saturday, April 21, at 6 p.m. at the Trenton Marriott at Lafayette Yard. For information, call 609-341-4743 or 609-341-4739.
Isles works in a number of different program areas — real estate development, environment and community health, a career center, an employment training program, an alternative high school for at-risk youth, community planning and research, and financial self-reliance.
“We have been motivated by what is the highest return on investment we can get in doing our mission,” says Johnson. “I think about what we are doing here as the future of high-performance nonprofit organizations that get a lot done for relatively few resources while saving the taxpayer and society lots of money. We hold stuff to that standard, and don’t do it if we are not saving lots of money.”
A critical tool that keeps Isles on the right track is measurement. In 1996 Johnson taught at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, where he helped design a national project to come up with a better way of measuring the impact of community-building organizations. He says that Isles is spending more time understanding the adage “that which gets measured gets done.” He says that “we want to make sure we are measuring the right things.”
But it takes more than measurement to find the most cost-effective way to accomplish Isles’ mission. It requires risk taking, something that the social entrepreneurs who people Isles are good at. “Isles has entrepreneurs from lots of different backgrounds — from Ivy League graduate degrees to high school diplomas to young people who don’t have a diploma,” says Johnson. “Lots of perspectives from the world clash here at Isles and that creates opportunities for creativity and new ways of addressing the financial question.”
But it’s neither measurement nor risk taking that defines the uniqueness of Isles and that has fueled its evolution. That secret lies in the history of this organization, which has grown slowly in response to expressed community needs and from Johnson’s own life experiences.
Johnson’s grandparents moved to Akron, Ohio, from the South to work in rubber factories, and his parents, says Johnson, “were blue collar struggling to be white collar.” The son of a trucker, Johnson grew up in Akron, Ohio, and learned the benefits of helping others when he was 10. In spite of their own financial problems, his parents considered that taking care of elderly neighbors to be a basic responsibility. He was the fourth of six children, and his parents divorced when he was 16. His mother’s health was not always good.The family went through hard times, and at one point the family lost their home.
The experiences of his youth — trying to buy groceries while concealing the food stamps — influence his work today. “We did not want to be viewed as victims, but as competent people going through tough times. That’s how I was fortunate to be raised. Everyone has the capacity to learn empathy, but it is very helpful to have been in those situations to understand, not just the pain but how — moving forward — one can one can work through those times in partnership with others.”
Johnson’s family also had a certain Libertarian streak, and they raised the children to believe that each of them had the capacity to do whatever they wanted to do. He values his high school years, at an inner city Catholic school. “I appreciated the value of silence and meditation, and the supportive community,” he says.
Johnson came to Princeton University by way of the football coaches who recruited him. “It was a challenging culture shock,” he remembers, and he worked in food service as a cook. “I worked hard,” he says, “to help pay my way and send money home.”
In his junior year, when his football career ended, as a result of injuries, his career direction began to form. Johnson was drawn toward a broader cultural experience in developing countries, and he went to northeastern Brazil to study the cultural impact of an industrial seaboard complex on a fishing village. He had chosen cultural anthropology as a major, partly because of his own cultural issues and partly because he knew the department would support him in studying abroad to explore families and a community going through some of the challenges he was going through.
Johnson wanted to know, in particular, how to support these struggling people without labeling them or programming them. “I didn’t want to be labeled and called a poor white kid,” he says. “I wanted to be treated as competent, capable, and powerful.” These feelings and what he learned bore fruit later when he sought to create “an entity that could take folks from outside the economic mainstream and treat them the way you want to be treated.”
After his department chair okayed his project, he immersed himself in the Portuguese language, in Brazil’s cultural history, and in the massive complex being planned and just becoming public. Although the military was still in charge in Brazil, an environmental movement was a budding in higher-education institutions, he says, “that were outraged at this highly pollutive, destructive development of an extraordinary estuary and culture.”
Back at Princeton for his senior year, Johnson linked up with other students and two faculty members, Steve Slaby of the engineering department and Richard Falk of the politics department, who were also interested in finding more appropriate ways to do development.
Johnson and several other students started an organization to promote development that would create jobs and economic value while also improving the environment. The focus was on promoting self-reliance and a more sustainable environmental outcome. One project was on a Caribbean island, hence the name “Isles,” and another was with the Mohawk Indians.
They incorporated in April, 1981, and Johnson graduated in June. The partners moved into 9 Charlton Street in Princeton, sharing a single room on the first floor for a couple hundred dollars a month. “We lived very simply,” Johnson recalls. They slept in sleeping bags and rolled them up during the day to transform the room into a small office with a desk. They ate partly through the benevolence of the Whole Earth Center, which sent over its expired dairy products. To supplement his income while developing Isles, Johnson found additional work picking up garbage at Forrestal Center.
In October, 1981, after a community group in Trenton asked Isles to help with a housing development project, Johnson and his partners moved the Isles office into the city, renting a room for $100 a month on the third floor of a house on Parkside Avenue.
“I fell in love with Trenton,” says Johnson. “I was eager to move down here and place myself in a community. It was more along the lines of what I was used to, and I felt comfortable.”
They decided to change the orientation of Isles, refocusing it on urban development in Trenton. “We had to look in our own backyard,” says Johnson, “where there were many of the same dynamics you would see in those other parts of the world, and also similar opportunities.
“Our original way of thinking about Isles,” he continues, “was that there were lots of important assets in these ‘poor’ communities — the people, their wisdom, the land, the buildings, even if they were vacant, and the ability of people to come together and learn. Isles became an opportunity to test different ideas from around the world and the country,” says Johnson, “ideas coming from communities to enable families to become more self-reliant and to improve the community.” The other student-founders soon went in other directions, one doing investigative reporting in Latin America and another working in land preservation near his home city of Chicago. Neither wanted to stay in Trenton, but Johnson was in it for the long haul, and he soon found an ideal partner.
Liz Lewis, a Rutgers graduate with an undergraduate degree in horticulture and a graduate degree in plant pathology, was recently back from Nepal. A native of Neptune, a New Jersey shore town, she had experience in urban gardening. Her first job was as a county agricultural agent, managing the first Newark urban gardening program. “I was taken with the possibility for making urban living healthier,” she says. “I love cities, both the history and other aspects that you find in an urban setting — the beautiful architecture and the natural side.”
With her background, she also understood how important the outdoor environment is to a healthy urban community. “I was always interested in how to make outdoor space functional, attractive, and life giving,” she says. “People need more than paved surfaces and buildings. They need green and opportunities to be outside in healthy spaces.” Recruited to run Isles’ first urban gardening program, she soon became Liz Johnson, and she and Marty started building a life in Trenton. The pair bought a roomy Dutch Colonial house, a fixer-upper with lots of room for Liz’s perennial gardens and for a growing family, in Trenton’s Island section, a diverse middle class neighborhood. Because of their low salaries, they could only afford a $9,000 mortgage, and used sweat equity to turn their house into a comfortable home. They raised three sons there. The boys attended Trenton public schools only briefly before moving on to Trinity, a parochial school in Trenton, and from there to the Princeton Day School. Jeremy, Lon, and Colin are now students at Princeton University, although Jeremy, the oldest, is taking a year off to get Zandigo, an Internet start-up company with a public policy focus, off the ground.
“We think there are many ways of being compensated, and money is just one of them,” says Johnson, who puts his salary at about what an experienced public school teacher would make, something north of $70,000 in Trenton, and his wife’s salary as chief operating officer at a little less than that. Compensations beyond salary include a flexible schedule that has allowed him to coach his children’s baseball, basketball, and football teams. “We have been able to bring them to community meetings. For us, that was wonderful to share as a family — modeling how you can be a positive force in the world. Even though we didn’t make much money, we have been able to gain the blessings of much that comes to Americans in the mainstream.”
In recommending the nonprofit vocation to parents with children, he notes that “growth in emotional intelligence and social competency comes with the choices we made. Our children are much more interesting because of them. They have been exposed to poverty and to extraordinary wealth. Our efforts were focused on keeping them understanding the world they are in.”
Another advantage of working at a non-profit with a relatively high profile has been the opportunity to travel widely, sometimes with the kids in tow. “We love to travel, and, because of our work, we have been to places like Japan, Istanbul, Brazil, Africa, and Mexico,” says Johnson.
Getting Isles up and running, and keeping it growing, has not been unlike founding and running a small business, with all of the funding uncertainties, personnel issues, and opportunities to be seized, or to be left alone. For this enterprise, the Johnsons have chosen all along to take their cues from their “customers,” the citizens of Trenton they have chosen to serve.
Getting down to the work of listening to the community, Isles first took a suggestion from the community on urban gardening, as Elyse Pivnick, Isles’ vice president of environment and community health, explains: “It started with folks coming to our office and asking to get help to clean up a lot that people were throwing garbage on.” But Isles went beyond just a cleanup and decided to turn the space into a garden “rather than leaving it for people to foul up again.” They did, and today Isles touts 35 community gardens, ranging in size from about 10 city lots to raised beds in a schoolyard.
Having tested the idea in a single lot, Isles wanted to expand urban greening into a larger program. In 1982 McVay of the Dodge Foundation and his colleague Gordon Glover came to visit and decided to fund the fledgling organization with a $31,000 grant. McVay called it “a modest grant,” but it tripled Isles’ first year operating budget of $10,000. Of that initial grant, $5,000 was targeted for the creation of a community gardening program.
McVay commented on another important contribution that community gardens make. “The gardens grew not just vegetables, but community,” he saw. “People were talking to one another and sharing interests and hopes. This twin effort really worked.”
Careful observation of the urban gardeners led Isles in yet another direction. “What we noticed was that most of the people gardening were over age 50 and from other parts of the country and the world,” says Pivnick. “We were not seeing a lot of young people, and we saw how little connection they had to the natural world if they were born and raised in Trenton.”
So in 1985 Isles started an urban environmental education program, which last year served more than 1,600 grammar school children. Another logical outcome of the urban gardening program was the formation of the Open Space Coalition of Trenton in 1986. Headed by Liz Johnson, it took a look at the entire system and come up with a master plan.
Also in 1986 Isles began responding to the enormous need for more quality, affordable housing, helping to create the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. Around this time the name “Isles” began to take on a metaphorical dimension, signifying community-based, decentralized islands of development.
With the encouragement of board members, the late Alma Hill and Fred Vereen, manager of Architects Housing in Trenton, Isles created a real estate development arm. In 1988 Isles acquired 20 homes and began their renovation in a handful of scattered neighborhoods.
Alex Allen, vice president of community planning and research, explains that for Isles development means involving the community in the planning from the ground up. “We don’t just address bricks and mortar development,” he says. “We also address community issues.” Isles involves residents in figuring out how they will work together to keep the community safe or make it safer, reduce crime, increase access to healthcare, and improve the local environment.
Isles has engaged in a neighborhood planning process, for example, on behalf of Capital Health Systems in the area around its Mercer campus. After rehabilitating 22 houses on Bellevue Avenue, the hospital wanted to see what else could be done to improve community around the hospital. “We dealt with improvement to existing housing, streetscapes, and open space,” says Allen, “and how to build stronger communication connections across different blocks in the neighborhood and approaches to addressing crime.”
With Isles going full steam ahead on housing, Marty Johnson recalls that “we started getting knocks on our doors from community people asking: ‘Got a job?’ At first we did what most nonprofit organizations, well intended, do and tried to get our construction managers to integrate trainees.” But in order to remain on time, cost, and quality, that approach didn’t work, so Isles began to isolate out a handful of homes for job training.
In 1992 Isles’ developed its YouthBuild program to train disadvantaged youth in construction trades. By 1995 it had evolved into an employment training program with an academic component, where 70 students, in a tough-love setting, divide their time between renovating homes, getting a high school diploma, and receiving life skills training. Johnson describes the students as “kids who didn’t do well in a conventional academic setting. Most have had run-ins with the law, and were likely to end up incarcerated if not for this kind of intervention.”
Clete Davis is vice of president of Isles’ YouthBuild Institute. A Trenton State College graduate, she moved to Trenton from Orlando, Florida (pre-Disney World, she emphasizes), and worked with the Trenton Board of Education in a dropout prevention program, where, incidentally, the mother of a YouthBuild participant was one of her students. Then she worked with the Department of Juvenile Services. After retiring from the Department of Corrections Davis came to Isles to work in its gardening program. “But it was not my forte,” she says, and she became the program director of YouthBuild and then its vice president.
Another natural consequence of Isles’ involvement in urban development was concern with the environment. “You can have a house to live in,” says Liz Johnson, “but if it is not a safe place to live or there is contamination on the street, it will impact the quality of life and the health and safety of your family.” And so Isles has gotten involved in brownfield redevelopment. Isles, working with the Department of Environmental Protection and the City of Trenton, created a demand system based on what human beings deserve from government, rather than on potential financial rewards.
The next step in Isles’ development came when the non-profit decided to have a look at the health statistics for Trenton and realized quickly that the health of people in Trenton seemed disproportionately worse than the health of nearby suburbanites. Analyzing hospital discharges in 1998, they found asthma rates higher in the city and started training community health workers to help families identify environmental triggers for asthma in their homes. Isles also partnered with the city health department, whose staff could answer questions about inhalers, doctors, and medical issues.
In 2002 Isles established its Environmental Health Program whose broader mandate also includes preventing lead poisoning. Isles encourages people to do the affordable home-repair work that can make their homes lead safe without eliminating all the lead in the buildings. Not only is Isles training residents to make their homes safer, but it is also providing job training for Trenton residents to enter the environmental cleanup profession, and is now placing its first graduating class of 21.
Recently Isles has also co-produced two videos with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the New Jersey Rutgers Extension to promote healthy homes, both narrated by a concerned parent in Trenton. “Dust Does Not Discriminate” is about what in household dust may be dangerous to families and suggests simple ways to clean a home that can reduce the impacts of hazardous elements. “Arrest the Pests in Your Nest” focuses on safe ways to protect a home against cockroaches, a known trigger for asthma and allergies, and rodents. The film also warns against using pesticides improperly, says
Pivnick cites people who have sprayed their counters three times a day with Raid. The partners are about to start on a third film on mold.
Isles’ latest environmental program is the Trenton Spirit Walking Loop, funded by the New Jersey Health Initiatives of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. With a goal of motivating people in Trenton to walk more, Isles is facilitating the creation of a walking loop to connect faith locations in the city, providing what Pivnick calls “an in-city walking asset.”
This project is emblematic of Isles’ approach to its community partnership. All interested parties, including Trenton’s faith-based and civic organizations as well as planners from the New Jersey Department of Transportation and the City of Trenton, came together a year ago with the planning firm, Project for Public Spaces. Participants did “neighborhood audits,” walking the streets of their community to record how changes in sidewalks, streets, or lighting could improve pedestrian accessibility and safety. They also identified features to include along the walk. This information gathered by the community has been incorporated into the design of the loop. Isles is also organizing walking groups in Trenton and sponsors an annual health fair and walk event in Cadwalader Park.
Another Isles’ initiative is the Financial Self-Reliance Program, created in 2001 to promote financial literacy and promote savings by matching people’s investments in their individual development accounts. IDAs match dollar-for-dollar the savings of participants to purchase a home, continue their education, or start a business. Housing counseling teaches first-time homebuyers the benefits of homeownership and helps participants navigate the home buying process. Mortgage lenders are often willing to provide mortgages to self-reliance program graduates with a down payment of only 1 percent to 3 percent.
Isles also initiated a microbusiness-microlending project in January. A group of six or seven would-be entrepreneurs work together in peer-lending circles to borrow money together, and the group decides who gets to borrow first. “It is a way of creating broader responsibility and capital and putting people in a group setting so they are not alone,” says Johnson. “Everything we do places people in group settings, where you get power and impact over time.”
Today Isles is organized as five separate departments under a single umbrella. Although the departments function almost like five separate organizations, they share administrative staff and leverage one another programmatically and personally. The interactions within Isles and with the community have created what Marty Johnson calls “economies of scope.” He says that “community life is pretty complicated. People don’t talk about single issues, like affordable housing or job training. Isles has multiple, complex ways of offering support for people, and people can choose to use them.”
Although Isles sees its multiple thrusts as a more effective way of influencing families, Johnson notes that one danger in such a large organization is that you can lose focus. “You must technically understand lots of things: the environment, real estate, education,” he says. “The way we get around these challenges is by having really thoughtful leaders in leadership roles — and that includes volunteers — and people technically strong in their areas.” And, of course, they try to stay focused on their mission.
Linda Revelle, chair of Isles’ board of directors, has been working to get a handle on the diverse activities that comprise Isles. She is changing the structure of the board, reducing the number of full board meetings and replacing them with more frequent, smaller meetings with the vice presidents and staffs in Isles’ different areas of focus. “We are moving in a direction where the board is looking to be more involved, not so much in decision-making or programming, but being more aware of specific issues for specific programs,” she says.
In the last eight years, Isles has put more emphasis on evaluating its own impact in the community and the region. The goal is to apply disciplined research to find out what works and what doesn’t and to help others to do similar work in the state and in the world.
Isles has many ongoing partnerships with faculty and students from Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, the College of New Jersey, and Rider University both as part of a research effort and as a venue for student volunteers.
With a staff today of over 40 and a budget of $4 million, Isles still functions, if not on a shoestring, then on something close to that. About eight years ago, Isles ran a capital campaign to create an endowment. “It is important to the stability and growth of any organization to have resources to count on when you lose funding for a program,” says Liz Johnson. Now Isles is in the midst of a second capital campaign to increase the endowment and support an expansion of the YouthBuild Institute.
One way that Isles stretches its resources is by finding ways for willing volunteers to be more engaged in community development and improvement work. One effective approach has been to create collaborative opportunities with the for-profit sector. “There are a lot of people out there who want to do things to be more helpful and productive,” says Liz Johnson. “You’d be surprised how many people call from outside Trenton and want to know how they can get involved in activities and share what they have learned in their careers or what they have accomplished in business.”
Isles works with a number of for-profit partners on its projects. Wyeth Corporation has been working with Isles on one project a year for the last five years, typically to design and build a playground or a garden. In a partnership over the last three to four years, Publicis has both sent volunteers to work on housing projects and provided pro bono assistance on producing marketing and public relations materials, which is the firm’s area of expertise.
In the immediate future, Revelle, chair of the board, and Marty Johnson would like Isles to be a growing force regionally, as issues like poverty, individual home ownership, lead and other health-related issues, and unemployment are spreading beyond urban areas to the suburbs.
To widen its impact, Isles is developing videos and using different media as well as its website to get information out to the wider community. It is also participating in national forums. About this new effort to reach out, Marty Johnson says, “For me personally, that’s the most exciting next phase of this organization’s life. That’s how we’re going to be able to influence the world.”
Looking farther, Revelle, a Mount Holyoke graduate with an MBA from the University of Wisconsin and a background in marketing for Dow Jones and Whitman’s Chocolates, expects to consolidate Isles’ resources, which now function in buildings throughout the city, under one roof.
“It is a holistic approach,” says Revelle. “One thing that attracts people to Isles is their approach to dealing with problems. It is not just applying a Bandaid but trying to make a permanent difference.”
And lots of people are willing to help out, with Isles serving as facilitator, hooking up both corporations and community members with projects that the community wants done. “There is a lot of learning and bridge building,” says Liz Johnson, “and I think that it is valuable both for the people contributing and the people benefiting from the contribution. Both sides learn that people are people, and they all have challenges and all have opportunities to make the world a better place.”
Liz Johnson left Isles for much of the 1990s, first to work as Trenton’s parks and recreation director, and then for Thomas Edison’s Watson Institute for Public Policy. Back for six years, she and Marty Johnson consult regularly, but he focuses more on speaking engagements and fundraising, while, she says, “my hands are in everything.” But despite their different responsibilities, she says, “we’re very much a partnership.”
McVay agrees, calling them “an invincible team,” and he adds, “they chose to live in Trenton and to make their lives there, and the Isles effort has changed the face and spirit of the capital of our state.”
“There were times when financial straits made it impossible to do things we wish we had done, but very rarely.” Johnson says. The life of a non-profit entrepreneur has brought substantial benefits of all kinds. He sums it up by saying: “We love waking up every morning knowing we will be on the right side of the equation.”
Isles Inc., 10 Wood Street, Trenton 08618; 609-341-4700; fax, 609-393-9513. Martin Johnson, president. Home page: www.isles.org