Martin Johnson ’81
President and Chief Executive Officer, Isles, Inc.
Asking big questions through anthropology
In search of a job during the Depression, my grandparents moved from Alabama to Akron, Ohio, to work in the rubber factories. In the next generation, my father and mother hit a similar rough financial spot before divorcing when I was 16. One year later, Princeton University football coaches visited my high school and suggested that I apply.
Darned if I didn’t get in
From that background, I came to Princeton with a full scholarship, but lots of questions about how I, and my background, fit in.
I took courses in several departments, but in the spring of my freshman year, I stumbled upon my first anthropology course. The professor urged us to question the cultural biases around us, to withhold judging others until we more thoughtfully understood the logic behind behavior. The course gave me the chance and tools to detach a bit and explore my own culture.
The professor, James Fernandez, was also the anthropology department chair. One day, he stood in front of the room and, perhaps to get our attention, transformed into another kind of primate. Rambling around the front of the room, arms past his knees and wide-eyed, he portrayed a gorilla in the wild. With that act, he displayed more than a deep knowledge of gorilla behavior: he showed us the link between man and ape. More importantly, I thought that any department whose chair would act like that in front of a classroom was my kind of department.
I had one more reason to choose anthropology: I wanted to study and do research in Latin America—not an easy option back in 1980. I’ll always remember the dean trying to dissuade me from studying abroad by telling me, “You can’t get a Princeton education anywhere but at Princeton.” Thankfully, the anthropology department didn’t entirely believe that. They supported my efforts to head south and Jim Fernandez became my adviser.
Spring semester of my junior year, I traveled alone to Pernambuco in northeast Brazil. After two months of language and cultural training, I traveled to a small, traditional coastal fishing village in the town of Suape. Transnational corporations proposed to build a massive industrial project that was to obliterate the small village and pristine coastal estuary. Of course, it was sold in the name of “progress” for the poor northeastern region.
For eight weeks, I studied the impact of the project on the village and its surroundings. I witnessed a nascent group of students, faculty, and villagers gather the courage to speak out against the development and, at times, against the military regime. It was my first immersion into the many paradoxes of development: Bigger is often not better. Those who benefit are often not who you think. Over time, many developments are a waste of resources.
With an energized sense of purpose, I wrote my junior paper while in Brazil, sent it to Princeton, and then hitchhiked around the country for three months, including deep into the Amazon jungle.
Back at Princeton my senior year, I wrote my thesis, titled “The Modernization of Northeast Brazil: A Cult of Progress and Technique.” It was an emotional critique of development theory and the Suape project, ending with a call to find more sustainable ways to develop communities like that village.
While job recruiters brought offers of high-paying careers to campus, a few other students and I decided to take a risk and start a nonprofit corporation to find those better ways. As for the money, well, I had little money coming into Princeton, so it wasn’t a big deal earning little going out. After all, most people just spend what they earn anyway.
Founding a nonprofit
Isles, Inc. was incorporated in April 1981 and I graduated in June. We had a staff of three, a first-year budget of $10,000, and lots of energy and ideas. Today, we have a staff of 45 and a multimillion-dollar budget. Based in Trenton, just south of Princeton, we’ve devised low-cost ways to partner with communities to foster self-reliance and redevelop struggling urban areas. We build energy-efficient homes, provide micro-business and other wealth-creation strategies, operate an innovative job training high school, clean environmental hazards, grow food in urban gardens, and engage communities in planning and research.
It is a hard, but satisfying job that requires me to question conventional approaches, challenge leaders and their assumptions, and manage alongside unusually diverse people, projects, and communities. Since we started the company from scratch, we built our own culture, surrounding ourselves with gifted, varied people that represent the communities we work alongside.
To succeed in this nonprofit development business, though, one has to think on a “systems” level. That means getting beyond the personal to a broader understanding of why groups and individuals do what they do. Crazy as certain acts seem at times, there is nearly always an overarching logic. We just need the humility, tools, and time to comprehend it.
Anthropology helps develop that understanding. In a shrinking world where cultures clash, assimilate, disappear, and yes, solve problems at a quickening pace, everyone should have anthropology training—especially the future leaders lucky enough to be Princeton students today.