It was football that gave Marty Johnson the first great opportunity of his life.
Johnson, whose grandparents were sharecroppers who moved north for opportunities in the industrial Midwest during the Great Depression, grew up in Dayton, Ohio, at the time a struggling rust belt town that offered few prospects. His father was absent, and his mother, a hard-working woman, was disabled for much of his childhood. He recalls she had too much pride to accept welfare even as the family lost its house. The family relied on food stamps to put meals on the table.
For the rest of his career, Johnson would remember these days when doing the work that has made him a household name in Trenton, as founder and CEO of Isles, the city’s largest community development organization with a staff of 54 and an annual budget of $6 million. Johnson is now looking back on his 38 years with Isles, as he is stepping down from the job. On Saturday, November 16, at 6 p.m., Isles will hold a tribute to Johnson’s legacy. The event will take place at the group’s most recent project, the Social Profit Center at Mill One at 1 North Johnston Avenue in Hamilton Township. For more information, call 609-341-4734.
What Johnson remembers most of all from his childhood was a desire to be treated with respect despite his circumstances. “My personal experience drives my sense of what is the best thing to do when you are confronting families that are facing challenges. But also it is my intrinsic motivation. It is my thing in the back of my brain that is pushing me to remember what it felt like and then to be able to protect, as I wanted to have been protected, the honor and dignity of everybody, even when they are going through tough times.”
Attending an Ivy League college never seemed like a realistic possibility for Johnson until a Princeton recruiter showed up on campus, having heard of Johnson’s extraordinary talents at football. He was recruited for the Tigers team.
Johnson says that with a haircut, a tie, and his athletic ability, as a white man, he appeared to fit in with Princeton’s privileged student body. But the culture shock of going from the inner city to the Ivy League was still extreme. His anthropology studies drew him back to work in the same kinds of communities he had grown up in.
The next big turning point in his life came in his junior year when he traveled to Brazil, where he discovered a corporation was going to build a huge industrial complex on a coastal area, destroying the local fishing villages and damaging the environment.
Having seen this example of a damaging development, Johnson imagined ways that development could be done in a way that benefited local communities instead of destroying them. What if local people could be in charge, he thought. What if outsiders such as himself could provide technical expertise, but rather than imposing their vision on a community, instead help communities achieve their own goals for the future in a way that was sustainable for the environment.
These ideas became the last chapter of his thesis. When Johnson graduated in 1981, he decided to create an organization to turn this idea into a reality. Together with two other students, he founded Isles. “The thinking was that we were using isles as a metaphor: community-based islands of development. Our job was going to be to support community-based organizations with technical organizing assistance and get out of the way. It was going to be seeding and supporting these islands. We weren’t going to be a big development company. We weren’t going to be rooted in one place.”
Isles started off following this concept by working with an island in the Caribbean and with the Mohawk tribe in New York State and Canada. Before long, some Trenton residents came to the group and asked for help with a project. “I came down and fell in love with Trenton,” he says. “It was like where I came from, so it was familiar. There was a strong community of people here who valued each other and recognized our interdependence.”
It also helped that Johnson could afford a room there: he found one on Parkside Avenue for $100 a month.
For the first year of Isles the operating budget was only $10,000. Johnson and the co-founders earned $200 a month, supplemented by a part-time job picking up garbage at the Forrestal Center on Route 1. He partly lived on expired dairy products donated by the Whole Earth Center in Princeton.
It’s worth noting that while Johnson was living like this, some of his classmates were going on to lucrative corporate jobs and Wall Street fortunes. Johnson says he also had his pick of employers and could have easily been making more money right after graduation than his father ever did. This would have helped his family too, but after talking it over with his mother, he decided to follow his instinct to help others who were in the same situation as he was growing up.
“She said, follow your dreams, you’ll be OK,” Johnson says. “There were a lot of good reasons she could have, should have said ‘you could help out.’ But she gave me the freedom to do that. She stayed positive, and she’s doing extremely well now.”
The first couple of Isles projects were just providing technical assistance, as envisioned. But the original vision for Isles changed as it ran against the realities of the situation on the ground. Johnson had envisioned supporting local community groups, but what if there were no strong local community organizations capable of doing the needed projects? Isles itself would have to take the lead.
Over the years Isles developed its own capacities to do things like build energy-efficient homes for first-time homeowners. Another early endeavor was urban agriculture: a different community group was attempting to build a housing project on some vacant land, and Johnson suggested using it to grow food while the project got off the ground. The idea was dismissed as impractical: he was told the soil was bad and “dogs would pee on the tomatoes,” Johnson recalls, but he went ahead anyway, spreading topsoil and manure on the plot of land.
The effort was a success, and urban agriculture remains one of Isles’ most important projects. It has created 70 gardens throughout Trenton.
The focus on local leadership hasn’t gone away. For example, in the agriculture program, local residents plant and maintain their own garden sites, with Isles providing support.
The mission, however, has crystallized into nine words: “We foster self reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities.”
Over the years, pursuing this mission has led the organization to abandon some projects while picking up others. Today its core activities are:
Planning and development: This includes building homes and parks and converting old factories. For example, the Isles headquarters on Wood Street is a former printer’s office.
Education and training: The Isles Youth Institute provides job alternative education for people who have dropped out of high school. It also operates a center for energy and environmental training specifically to prepare high school graduates for “green” jobs such as environmental cleanup and installing solar panels.
Wealth Creation: This arm of the organization focuses on helping people make better financial decisions, helping them save money, build assets, and buy homes.
Community Environmental Health: In the last 15 years, this has focused on lead. Isles has developed capabilities to identify homes where lead is poisoning children, and then go in and remediate the threat. He says Isles can now make a home safe from lead for $7,000: a figure low enough that it’s possible to envision eliminating lead poisoning from the whole city.
All of these services — he doesn’t call them “programs” — emphasize providing support for people who want to help themselves and use their own capacities to take control of their own lives.
Despite Isles’ efforts, Trenton has gotten worse by many measures over the last 38 years. As the city’s tax base has eroded, Isles finds itself doing jobs that would ordinarily be handled by a functioning city government. A recent project had Isles take an inventory of all the abandoned properties in Trenton and create a map that can be used to correlate abandoned properties with crime, pollution and other factors. It was a project that provided useful data, and also one that would ordinarily be taken care of by the municipality.
“The public sector is increasingly less capable of managing stuff, whether it is planning or development,” Johnson says. “We’re going in and working with communities to take over what used to be the Parks and Recreation Department, which is now just a few people in Trenton.”
It’s “exciting and appropriate but also scary at times” for the private sector and community groups to be taking over basic government functions, Johnson says. “We have to step up.”
Johnson is not pessimistic despite bad news about employment and home ownership in Trenton in recent years. He notes the problem is not just in Trenton: In Hamilton and parts of Ewing, for example, concentrated poverty is having the same pernicious effects that can be seen in Trenton. Isles clients also think regionally. He says that the group is helping 50 families buy homes this year, and that most of them are considering moving outside the city to get access to better education for their children. “They’re looking for safer streets, better schools … the American dream,” he says. Johnson wondered if this was good for the city of Trenton, but decided that Isles’ focus should be on helping families do what was best for them.
He also notes that there is good news in Trenton statistics, such as its population decline having leveled off and started to go the other direction.
Johnson says he wants Isles to play a part in helping tackle concentrated poverty at a higher level when city and regional governments take action on systemic issues.
One of those issues is the way New Jersey’s patchwork of tiny governments works to concentrate poverty in certain areas. “Our 200+ year old local government structure made sense when there were small villages to be managed. Today these many competing small cities and towns and the redundant government layers that support them make little sense and add to the segregation of our region,” Johnson wrote in an email.
His aim has been to play the social impact game while working to change its rules.
“It’s important to do good work locally, but if the broader trends as we’ve just described are moving against you, there are still things you can do locally that are going to mitigate the bad things that are happening, and then get you to the table when it comes time to do the policy-related work that’s necessary,” he says.
For example, Isles is figuring out how to deal with lead in homes in Trenton, which helps hundreds of local residents, but the methods it is developing might someday be adopted at a statewide level, creating change at a much higher level.
As Isles expanded into new projects, some fell by the wayside.
“Failures are awesome teachers,” Johnson says. “If you’re not taking risks, if you’re not testing the margins, you’re not going to be as impactful.”
For instance, 10 years ago, the state and county, flush with economic stimulus funds, asked Isles to develop a capacity to weatherize homes. Isles spent a few hundred thousand dollars creating a company called E4 that would test homes for energy efficiency and make improvements.
As the work progressed, it became apparent that many of the homes in need of energy improvements also had lead issues. Since the state couldn’t pay for lead remediation along with energy efficiency upgrades, Isles declined to do energy improvement projects that would end with a home that was still poisoning children with lead. “It turned out to be a disconnect between what the funding sources would support and what we really needed to do,” he says. “It cost us a couple hundred thousand dollars over a few years, but we learned so much while doing it,” he says. The lessons of this effort informed the creation of the new lead remediation program.
Johnson lives with his family, appropriately enough in Trenton’s Island neighborhood.
With his Princeton education, Johnson could have made a fortune in the private sector. Instead, he pegs his average salary over the years as that of a high school teacher.
“I’ve been teaching this work and one of the challenges for young people is to imagine turning down those kinds of jobs,” he says. “If you learn to live simply, it’s just fine. Our sons are more effective young men because they learned how to grow up here with that kind of money.”
Johnson feels that by turning down money, he earned the freedom to create: “I feel like I’m an artist, able to create with a blank canvas,” he says.
Asked which of those creations he was most proud of, Johnson mentioned the Isles Social Profit Center, a 75,000-square-foot factory building in Hamilton where social impact organizations can co-locate, mingle, and exchange ideas in a way similar to that of a tech startup incubator. Public interest organizations, he says, are often challenged by their facilities and end up isolated.
However, he declined to be pinned down on a particular favorite project.
“I’m most proud of having 38 years of a career where I wake up knowing I am probably on the right side of the balance,” he says.
Another key to Isles’ success has been related to funding. “The only way I know to keep integrity throughout this work over time is to not rely on any one source of funds too much,” he says, which is why Isles draws its funds from 200 institutional sources and more than 1,000 individuals. Organizations that rely on a primary funder tend to take on the culture of that funder over time, he says.
In the absence of a domineering donor, the approach that Isles takes has been shaped by Johnson and his desire for service recipients to exercise self determination.
For instance, the students of Isles Youth Institute, the school for high school dropouts, are all there by choice, even the ones who have been sent there by the legal system. “The judicial placements can come in, but the kids need to be ready in choosing that,” he says. “They have to be ready to move forward with their lives.”
With urban agriculture, Isles provides only enough support for gardens to succeed, then moves out of the way to let locals take charge. The lead program works with families who can choose to have their homes tested and if they want remediation services.
“It’s all driven by individuals taking control of their own futures and their families’ futures,” he says.
Throughout his career Johnson has stood with one foot in each world: the privileged, wealthy corridors of power in Princeton, and the run-down cities like Dayton and Trenton, and tried to connect the two.
“I think a lot about how challenging it’s been over the years to see kids in bare feet in the wintertime in Trenton and then drive up to Princeton,” he says. “Or to look at the data and see that we’ve got a 13.5-year lifespan differential between Princeton Junction and Trenton and the dissonance in my job between having to bridge these worlds. This is what I’ve taken on as a career as a multi-tribal connector, trying to remind different players around the region that we’re not that big and we need a way to bridge those gaps.”
Johnson says his background in cultural anthropology gave him the insight that most people are hard-wired to take care of people they view as part of their own “tribes.” But the problems of the interconnected global economy will require leaders who look outward to deal with issues such as pollution and immigration, and inward towards their own “tribes” at the same time.
Those who have known Johnson for a long time and those who have recently met him describe him as such a leader. Andre Thomas, the manager for Isles’ job training center, met Johnson almost 20 years ago. Thomas was just out of prison himself and doing some volunteer work when he came across Isles.
“You would assume that a white guy coming from Princeton comes from money,” Thomas says. “I found out he came from humble beginnings and got a break and took full advantage of that break but then decided to go to Trenton.”
Thomas says whoever steps in to lead Isles after Johnson has big shoes to fill.
“Marty’s my guy,” he says.
Elyse Pivnick, senior director of environmental health at Isles, has been with the organization for 27 years. “Marty leads by example,” she says. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a master’s in urban planning, Pivnick now works in lead remediation.
She says she admires the way Johnson conceptualizes issues differently from other leaders. For example, with lead, he often talks about “removing it from the ecosystem,” that is, taking it not only out of homes but from water and soil. “You hear other people talking about lead in a way that is compartmentalized, and we’re looking at the bigger picture,” she says. “He has a way of conceptualizing urban issues that makes them easily understood by folks who may not be thinking about this every day, and he has a way of explaining why we do our work that I think attracts people and engages people.”
Dimitris Ntaras, a Princeton University junior, met Johnson two years ago when Johnson was teaching a social entrepreneurship class. With Johnson’s help, Ntaras developed a research project into water purification technology that eventually turned into a startup company. Together with two other students, Ntaras founded AquaCerta at Princeton’s eLab Accelerator. The company is developing water filtration technology for use in developing countries or natural disaster areas.
He says Johnson’s advice and perspective were central to the creation of the company, and that he would often ask questions that focused Ntaras on social impact rather than the “Silicon Valley kind of hustle” of tech startup culture.
Johnson described his role as a multi-tribal connector, and Ntaras credited him with helping connect Princeton, a $26 billion institution that traditionally has been shielded and isolated, to the communities near it that might benefit from collaboration.
Johnson says stepping back from Isles was “a little like letting go of my fourth child. I’m optimistic that the great people at Isles and the thinking and culture embedded in the organization will carry it through the next 38 years. I think about the thousands of people and communities that we’ve impacted, and I feel satisfied with this career that I’ve built. But what’s kept me here for nearly four decades is the belief that there should be more organizations like Isles around the state and beyond. That will be my job for the next decade and beyond: teach and help others get it right. The world needs it more than ever.”
Johnson hopes that his successor, whoever it turns out to be, will carry on this work, and offered the following advice to them:
“All people/families have surprising capacity. Celebrate and honor it, and keep high expectations, even when they are in distress and you feel sorry for their plight. That often means getting out of their way. Always treat others the way you’d want to be treated.”
Legacy Celebration, Isles Inc., Mill One, 1 North Johnston Avenue, Hamilton. Saturday, November 16, 6 p.m. Register. $75. www.isles.org.