The I Am Trenton Community Foundation recently awarded more than $40,000 in grants to support eight community and economic development projects in the Old Trenton neighborhood, bordered by North Broad Street, Perry Street, Route 1, and East State Street.

Established by Isles and administered through IAT Foundation, the grant program is funded by the New Jersey Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit Program.

The small grants — usually under $2,000 — are designed to make Old Trenton “a safe, active, and vibrant community, with a particular focus on reclaiming underused buildings and spaces, and supporting the arts as an agent of social change,” according to press materials.

In addition to a 2007 Old Trenton Neighborhood plan, Isles also spearhead the 2016 plan that designated the area bordering the D&R Canal and the Assunpink Creek as the Creek 2 Canal Creative District.

With grant eligibility focused on providing benefits to that district, the current recipients and projects include:

Aerosol Illusions: Roberto Clemente Park Heritage Murals to “celebrate Puerto Rican heritage and contributions to the Old Trenton Neighborhood.”

Bike Arts: Bicycle Par(t)king’s creation of 10 fully custom Art Racks installed to secure bicycles utilizing leftover parking meter poles and recycled bicycle parts.

Lora Productions: Image and sound to support professional artist development voice and music events that also serve as educational training.

Orchid House Cafe’s Community Kitchen to provide culinary start-ups risk-free access to equipment, marketing tools, and professional environments needed to make and sell products.

Puerto Rican Parade of Trenton to engage Puerto Rican community members in the creation of a parade float.

Trenton Community A-Team to support staffing and activation of its studio and create a more welcoming gateway to the Creek 2 Canal revitalization area.

Trenton Free Public Library to support its Trenton Makes Space for Art Makers project that involves a new adult art club for library patrons and the expansion of the library art gallery.

The Become Factory to pilot a digital arts incubator with access to equipment, professional development opportunities, events, and marketing to enable Old District artists to reach a broader market.

“I Am Trenton is a collective,” says IAT’s Kelly Ingram about the organization. “It’s a team effort,” says the group’s past president and one of its founding members.

Ingram, a Trenton resident and business owner, serves in part as the institutional memory and works closely with fellow board member Jon Carl Lewis.

The two are in Pat’s Diner in Trenton and talking over coffee about the organization’s history, impact, and future.

“We’re all strong individuals and quirky in our own way and bring individual talents that compensate for the strengths and weaknesses of each other,” says Ingram about the nonprofit organization’s volunteer board members.

Ingram says they keep themselves focused on a common goal spelled out on the group’s website: “To provide opportunities to all Trentonians to be actively engaged in shaping the future of our city.”

With a “small is beautiful” philosophy and a network of roots in the community, over the past nine years I Am Trenton (IAT) coordinators say the organization has given out more than $80,000 to 100-plus community-driven projects in Trenton from its general fund and partnered with others to give out and administer neighborhood-specific grants in Trenton’s West Ward and North Clinton Avenue areas.

In return the grantees “have turned overgrown lots into community hubs, taught robotics, collected stories, made films, danced, done yoga, gotten kids into college, and installed bike pumps around the city,” says the IAT website.

Coordinators say the results embody the community spirit that makes Trenton better every day.

Yet, as Lewis says, “Outside of our grantees, a casual Trenton resident would think of the billboard campaign first and then ask questions about what I Am Trenton does.”

Lewis is talking the organization campaign to highlight dedicated individuals who make Trenton a positive community. The first billboard project filled the public’s eye in 2008.

As Ingram notes about the project, “We know Trenton has challenges, but we also know the resourcefulness and accomplishments of our fellow Trentonians who make the impossible real every day. We’re proud to stand with them and say, ‘Yes. We are Trenton.’”

Ingram says the billboard project’s fundraising and planning are labor intensive. “They take a lot of energy. We arrange for local photographers and do all the production and put up the billboard. That’s the work of an advertising team.”

Yet despite the success of the project, Ingram prefers to see beyond the billboards and says people outside or even inside the city often miss the positive efforts of the people in the community.

As evidence she points to young entrepreneurs including photographer and educator Bentrice Jusu’s work with city youth, Elijah Dixon opening up a business and starting a collective on East Hanover Street, and Wills Kinsley’s various bicycle-related projects.

I Am Trenton Foundation past president Kelly Ingram, left,
and board member Jon Carl Lewis.

All have received IAT grants generally ranging from $500 to $1,500.

“I Am Trenton has eyes on the ground,” says Lewis. “We see projects that are happening in places that state workers are told not to go. We work with everyone from what people consider more troubled neighborhoods or add to organizations like the Catholic Youth Organization.

“We’re not funding the projects that have a lot of money coming in. We’re funding small projects that wouldn’t happen. One of the strengths is that our board is diverse enough and connected enough that we have our ears to ground and bring ideas to the table.”

Ingram says one of the community development initiatives IAT started was having workshops where they invited potential applicants to share ideas to improve the community. “They turned (the workshop) into a session of community problem solving. Before we gave out money people were pulling together resources to make their neighborhood better.”

That IAT money comes in several different forms. One is the basic IAT city wide grants. Applications are released in June, due in July, and announced in August.

The others include managing small grants for East Trenton Collaborative and Isles’ Old Trenton Neighborhood and Creek to Canal arts district project. Both groups receive New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit funds to support community-based nonprofit revitalization plans or projects.

Ingram credits former vice president and past treasurer Iana Dikidjieva for IAT’s involvement with those two other projects. Dikidjieva saw IAT had already developed a fair and equitable grant review practice that could be used rather than duplicated by other groups. IAT was then involved in a pilot project that now continues. “It is a great example of community growing,” says Ingram.

Outside the subcontracted grants, IAT’s current general budget hovers at $20,000. While small in comparison to other foundations, it shows continued efforts to surmount one of Trenton’s major obstacles: a diminished business community and limited funding sources.

Ingram says, “We get a lot of small donations, a lot of checks for $15. (Yet) when people give us that $15 or $5 they’re investing in their neighborhood. And that may be all they have to give. And we would like people to invest in that.”

Janssen Pharmaceutical and Investor’s Foundation supported the 2017 billboard campaign and New Jersey Manufacturer’s has committed support for 2018, 2019, and 2020.

The small step approach actually seems to be part of the group’s history when it started in 2007.

“The idea of I Am Trenton came when during (Mayor Doug) Palmer’s administration,” says Ingram, adding that it was connected with then-Trenton recreation director Sam Frisby’s need for an increase in recreation funds. Frisby is now a Mercer County Freeholder and Capital Area YMCA executive director.

“The city created a study and showed a need for a community foundation,” says Ingram. “Then the (2008) financial crash started and we decided to continue. Someone suggested being involved with Princeton Community Fund, but we decided to focus on Trenton and a community foundation for Trenton and by Trenton — forever.”

The IAT website shows the broad group of city and community people who created the initial board and connected to the various communities. “We started as Capital City Community Foundation,” says Ingram. “I Am Trenton is the registered name.”

No matter the name, the group started its first round of small grants, $3,500 total, and a public project. “Christine Palmer came up with the billboard campaign,” says Ingram, adding, “I have been involved from the get go. We’re fortunate to have people who are here for the right reason.”

Interestingly neither she nor Lewis is from Trenton.

Lewis, who is employed by the Flemington Free Public Library, is from Millville, New Jersey. His mother was a teacher and his father a probation officer. After attending college in South Carolina, Lewis ended up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he met his future husband, Steve Slusher. “He was part owner of a pharmaceutical firm that got bought up by a Princeton company, and we moved to Central New Jersey. I wanted to live in a city that was not part of a megalopolis. That left us with Trenton, Atlantic City, and Camden. We fell in love with the housing stock in Trenton.”

“I am from Waltham, Massachusetts,” says Ingram, whose father ran an insurance business. She says she first came to the area to take a job at Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton and met her future husband, Ray Ingram, an IT consultant and owner of the software and service company Dathil.

“He was living in Mercerville, and I didn’t want to live there,” she says. “We got a lovely in a house in Trenton, and here we are 31 years later.”

In between then and now was a stint at Mathematica in New York City, a change in careers, and the launching of her own decorative arts company, Kelly Ingram Finishes.

She says she left Mathematica after a friend introduced her to the Isabel O’Neil Studio, which specializes in teaching traditional techniques to create painted finishes that imitate exotic and luxurious materials. Now 28 years later Ingram has clients in Princeton, Hopewell, and Boston.

Lewis says he got involved with IAT because Ingram asked him. Another reason is family legacy. “My ancestors lived in the Trenton before the 1860s — they just sort of pop up as part of the Trenton community involved with building Mt. Zion AME Church. My grandmother left Trenton to live with my grandfather (in southern New Jersey). I used to visit Trenton until the riots and then stopped coming. I have fond memories of Trenton — like this is where my family comes.”

Looking forward, Ingram sees the group continuing to produce small events to help the group step forward to reach some strategic goals. That include increasing the board, building deep alliances with the city’s various racial and ethnic populations, and helping new businesses and initiatives.

And then there is the billboard campaign. “If we can get the funding for another billboard campaign we’d want one on Route 1 heading into Princeton,” says Ingram. “We do great PR for the city.”

I Am Trenton Community Foundation, Box 1743, Trenton 08607. 515-674-2127.