Planning sustainable urban living is a crucial aspect of any city’s growth, but gaps between upper and lower income continue to grow at rapid rates. So what has been done in Baton Rouge to help combat this?

Founded in 2010, MetroMorphosis is a Baton Rouge-based organization dedicated to empowering residents in lower-income areas of Baton Rouge to create and sustain organic growth. Instrumental in these changes is Raymond Jetson, a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow born and raised in Baton Rouge, who is the founder and CEO of MetroMorphosis.

“It is so important that we are intentional in planning the community that we want to live in because things don't happen by coincidence,” Jetson says. “Planning is one of the critical ingredients of ensuring that you revive distressed and neglected communities in ways that honor the sacrifices and perseverance of the people who live there.”

We sat down with Jetson to discuss bringing value to undervalued communities through sustainable growth and long-term planning.

What was your goal in founding MetroMorphosis? Has it come to fruition?

MetroMorphosis began as a series of initiatives to build a better community — such as creating community gardens and increasing access to healthy food — but it became much more cohesive than a collection of actions; it became more intentional.

We wanted to facilitate the organic transformation of inner-city neighborhoods from within. Our small business initiative, LaunchBR, for example, educates lawn care startups in inner-city communities on sustainable practices. We made it a goal to treat lower-income residents with the respect and dignity they deserve, and taking small businesses seriously is a huge step in that direction. Organic business development is key to sustainable urban living.

MetroMorphosis wants residents to have the chance to make their own way and define their own cities.

How has your background informed your work?

My experience growing up in Baton Rouge was a climate that put service above all else. I have been culturally conditioned to understand that any opportunity that I have is based upon the sacrifices of others and comes with a responsibility to reach out and impact others. Fighting for equity for all has always been my way of life.

I had amazing role models. My great-uncle Gus Young was a trailblazer for people of color in Baton Rouge. Gus Young Avenue is named after him, in fact. My father, Louis Jetson, reflected that same commitment to service. I grew up in a home where using the resources that you've received in a way that allowed others to benefit was just part and parcel to our existence. And so that is the foundation upon which I stand.

What can we do as a city to advance our communities? What are the biggest challenges to be overcome?

The conversation surrounding inner cities has been slow to happen because racial issues are hard to talk about — many people in the Baton Rouge community don’t want to acknowledge the disparities in income or living conditions that can often accompany racial inequities. Not having that conversation makes it hard to address the problems with inner-city life as symptoms of a larger system.

For example, another of our initiatives, Urban Congress, is trying to change how African American males are perceived. There’s often a very negative narrative surrounding them. A lot of those perceptions start with low-performing inner-city schools, so Urban Congress works with boys from kindergarten and up to maintain engagement, both at school and in the larger community.

Traditionally, the Baton Rouge community has relied on old-fashioned practices, so change and progress are very difficult to move forward. Planning will play such a crucial role in our community’s future. But for it to be successful, planning must be inclusive, providing opportunities for the people who are impacted by policies to be able to give voice to their concerns and aspirations.

We can overcome these challenges by having tough conversations about race and equity and by being more intentional about how we plan our future growth.