By Richard Eisenberg, Next Avenue
Raymond Jetson’s passion, which led him to be a 2020 Influencer in Aging, is motivating older Black men to mentor Black youth and young adults. The pandemic’s brutal impacts on the African American community have only intensified Jetson’s efforts. “It exacerbated the inequities that we reflect on periodically every time there’s a crisis,” he said.
Jetson is president and CEO of MetroMorphosis, the fledgling Baton Rouge, La. not-for-profit he founded to help solve problems faced by residents of inner-city neighborhoods. His Urban Elders Council aims to “harness and delploy the wisdom and experiences of older community members as visible and accessible resources.” This work echoes Jetson’s dedication to serve others throughout his career — make that careers.
He was pastor to the Star Hill Church for 23 years; a Louisiana state Representative for 15 years; CEO for the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps nonprofit supporting families victimized by natural disasters; deputy secretary for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals and — until recently — a member of his governor’s Louisiana Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force.
“How do I pay forward the deposit that others made into my life?”
The name Jetson might make you think of the 1960s animated space-age family on TV, getting around in flying cars in 2062. But this Jetson, a former Public Voices Fellow with the Encore.org nonprofit, is very much about improving the world of 2020 for older Americans and younger ones.
Next Avenue: Could you talk a little bit about what led you to MetroMorphosis and your focus on mentoring?
Raymond Jetson: My great uncle was active in the civil rights movement. My father joined in that that journey. And so, I grew up in an environment where giving back to the community was a part of life and who you were.
I was living in Phoenix and came back to Baton Rouge to help my dad run for the Louisiana legislature. He won a very improbable election, started not feeling well, got sick, and six months later, he died. My mom asked me to run to finish out that term to which I responded, ‘Okay, Mom, but one term. I need to go back to Phoenix.’ That was 1983 and I’ve still not made it back to Phoenix to live again. I ended up serving four terms in the Louisiana legislature.
Then years later, you participated in Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative for midcareer professionals. How did that lead to what you’re doing now?
It made me begin to think differently about how I deploy myself. How do I use the gifts, talents, abilities, experiences, networks and relationships that I have to make a difference in the world to the degree that I can. The work of MetroMorphosis emerged from that; we incorporated in 2012.
Our primary focus is how do we bring about change that begins with the people and assets that are found in inner-city neighborhoods? We believe that it is about creating this tipping point of engaged citizens, and so we focus on mobilizing.
Why is mentoring young Black men and youth so important to you?
There were always older men who poured into my life — from my great uncle, my father, high school and college football coaches and acquaintances.
I began to think about this word legacy. Not what is it that I can leave behind that has my name on it, but what is it that I can leave behind that lives on after me? And what do I do with the experiences that I have gone through, in life, how do I use those to make life better for others?
Encore Public Voices created this great platform, helped me to begin to think about this whole issue of aging and longevity. And I began to think about mentoring in a couple of ways.
First of all, how do we value the voices of our elders? And how do we create these relationships and structures where the wisdom of the elders can be poured into the next generation? At MetroMorphosis, we initiated what we call the Urban Elders Council — wonderfully accomplished bright people who all happened to be over the age of 60.
There’s this whole notion of older Black men and the responsibility that we have with young men.
Where did that come from for you personally?
I was a ninth grader and I thought that I’d had enough school for one day. And so, I excused myself early and I was walking in the neighborhood and a gentleman I had known all of my life stopped me and said, ‘Where are you going?’ And I said something to him. And he said, ‘No, you are going back to school.’
And I said to him, ‘But Kenny, you dropped out of school.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, and you’re not going to make the same mistake I did.’ And he walked me to the back gate of the school and I went back. And so, I share with folks that a high school dropout helped me graduate from high school.
The outcomes today for Black boys and young men are not really good in America. And so, what is my obligation? How do I pay forward the deposit that others made into my life? One of the things that we consistently push forward is that those who have lived experiences have an obligation.
How can older Black men do that kind of mentoring?
We have resources in our communities. I am a member of a fraternity of college-educated, African American males. I received my quarterly journal from my fraternity and they had five hundred and four pictures of African American men in this fraternity who were over the age of seventy-five. And I imagined what that number would look like if we dropped it to sixty or fifty-five, and that’s just one organization. And what happens if there is a coordinated strategy where these college-educated Black men started showing up on high school campuses or middle school campuses or elementary school campuses? What happens if they were joined by the men’s group from churches that are African American?
And so, I think that it’s not something where we need to create something brand new. The people who live in the communities and care about these communities are going to have to make it happen.
What would you like to see those men do when they show up at the high schools?
MetroMorphosis recently hosted some listening sessions with young Black men and what we heard over and over again was them saying, ‘This is the first time that I’ve been in a place with older Black men, where I could just say what I was thinking.’
So, I think that it is first about just being there and listening. And there is an intersection in your experiences that you can speak to and that you can share some wisdom with. So, on the school campuses I think it’s being present. It’s building a relationship. It’s helping with areas of study that you might be able to be helpful with.
For the older twentysomethings, the great challenge is: How do I get into the workforce? There are a significant number of young African American males who have not completed high school. And so, talking with a young man and helping him chart a path into the workforce and supporting making that happen, helping him fill out the application for an interview, to show up for the interview, to be prepared, to get the job. You know, just really, really practical things.
And is it also about networking? Should older Black men be connecting these younger Black men to people they know who might have job openings?
Without question. At MetroMorphosis, we assembled a workforce group from the local community college. We also identified some HR individuals from some of the chemical plants around us. And when we got them together and identified a cohort of thirty young African American men, the workforce folks at the community college connected them with the folks from the industries. A number of these young men are very likely to go on to what will really be life-changing opportunities.
“Younger people energized movements, but the wisdom of the elders make them effective.”
How does the pandemic relate to this kind of mentoring?
The pandemic just really brought things to a screeching halt in so many ways. In every aspect of life, Black and brown communities were impacted to a more significant degree. So, folks were sicker; more people proportionately died.
One of the things that I took from my days during Katrina and subsequent disasters is people with resources recover; people without don’t. And so, what you have is a group of people who were already in challenging situations and that has just blown up exponentially because now you have this disruption of life.
And there is probably more need for mentoring, which has become more challenging because the very same people that I would argue have larger networks, a more robust set of experiences and greater resources — guys like me— are also at greater risk for the pandemic.
And how does the murder of George Floyd and the call for racial justice around the country fit in?
The eight minutes and 46 seconds that changed the world. Watching the execution of George Floyd was a pivotal moment.
The language that we have borrowed at MetroMorphosis is understanding the difference between a moment and a movement. A moment is when something happens and we are excited, angered, overjoyed or whatever. And then we move on. A movement is a sustained set of actions that bring about change that moments don’t. The question that we have to ask: Is this a moment, a horrific one that we were all brought ringside to watch or does it call attention to this movement for equity?
I think George Floyd’s death will lead to some very significant change in our country. That is my belief. And that is my hope.
You wrote that creating a better brighter future demands that elders sometimes take a back seat. What did you mean?
Powerful movements are almost always energized by young people. It was true of the civil rights movement. It’s true of the equal rights movement, it’s true of the gay rights movement. Younger people energized movements, but the wisdom of the elders make them effective. And I think that sometimes the elders are too slow to make space for the next generation.
And so, I think one of the things that we have to do is, to use a really horrible analogy, we have to be the bumper railings on the bowling alley. We have to keep younger people in the lane and make sure that they don’t stumble into the gutter. We have to help give voice to that deep, deep sense of commitment that they have within them and stay out of the way.
You’ve also said: ‘I believe one of the greatest opportunities before us today is engaging older adults as resources to respond to many of the challenges impacting communities across the country.’ How do you see older adults as resources?
That is one of the driving principles beneath the Urban Elders Council: How do we position these wonderfully bright and accomplished people so they can give voice that’s rooted in the wisdom of their years and their experiences and improve the quality of life for others?
In so many ways, it requires us thinking differently about older citizens in our community and not only the ways that we think about them, but the ways that we treat them, engage them, support them.
You’ve described yourself as an elder in training. What do you mean by that?
I’m still trying to figure out what being an elder means.
I have a picture in my office of my great grandmother and great grandfather. I grew up as a young boy next door to them. I still today treasure the wisdom that they spoke into my life. Neither one of them could write, but I watched my great grandfather buy and sale acres of land and other things with a handshake.
These people were wise; they were driven by a set of values. They valued neighbors, they valued people, but they also understood that they had a responsibility to those around them. And so, I want to be able to speak into the lives of others in ways that is really valuable to them. And in ways that make a difference in their lives. Because I am who I am not just because of my great grandmother and great grandfather, but there were elders who spoke into my life all along the way.
And I want to be able to make this world a better place, because the wisdom and the benefit of my experiences — good, bad, and otherwise — can be deposited into the lives of others.
If you could change one thing about aging in America, what would it be?
Aging would become a true community experience. Too much of the aging experience happens in isolation; isolated individuals, in families or small networks. When aging is a community experience, the wisdom and skills of the elders are available and valued, and the resources of the community are accessible to them.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic changed your perspective on aging?
Covid-19 has revealed the degree of dysfunction and inadequacy present in the ecosystem that surrounds and supports many of the elders, especially in Black and brown communities. The need to challenge the status quo and make big changes, rooted in the voices of the elders, is clear and apparent.