Guest Columnist

Look for the innovators in a crisis

Volunteers fill bottles with hand cleanser at Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery in Swisher on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Li
Volunteers fill bottles with hand cleanser at Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery in Swisher on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

This quote from Fred Rogers floats around and is especially visible during times of trouble. It is salient now as we look to helpers from medical professionals to delivery drivers, from teachers to people who volunteer to shop for elderly neighbors.

I have always known about the helpers. What has been new to me over the past few weeks — what has made me catch my breath, made my heart ache, and made me cry tears of fear, empathy, and pride — has been the innovation. The sheer ability of humanity to adapt to a sudden new reality is amazing.

Teachers, largely with very little notice, shifted their curriculum online. Zoom classroom meetings appeared out of thin air. YouTube suddenly became handy for more than videos of kids unboxing toys. My daughter’s industrial technology teacher figured out how to teach 12-year-olds how to design houses using a computer software program he had never used himself. Schools around the country put together car parades, driving around neighborhoods to make themselves visible in a gesture of solidarity with their students. Considering 55 million kids had their schools shut down within a couple of weeks, most teachers did a pretty good job of innovating.

There have been other signs of innovation around the community as well. When restaurants had to close their dining rooms, I began to see many of them start to offer family-style meals for carry out. There is one restaurant in my hometown that is even doing a subscription meal delivery service. A bar in Cedar Falls, named the Library, was briefly lending out books along with off-sale beer.

I have seen dozens of people sewing masks, many of whom are using fabric scraps salvaged from bedsheets, T-shirts, and even old socks. Two social media friends of mine, with no connection to each other, came to the realization that people who are hard of hearing and rely on lip reading would have trouble with everyone wearing masks. Both came up with designs that include a clear plastic panel so you can see the wearer’s mouth.

Artists and engineers have come together to use equipment like 3D printers to make equipment to protect our front-line workers. Innovation.

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Firefighters, friends and neighbors parade down streets, cheering and honking to provide makeshift birthday celebrations for kids who don’t get to have a party. Innovation.

Yes. Look for the helpers. Helpers are the good in the world, tending to our wounds and repairing our communities. But also look for the innovators. They are the ones giving me hope that we can adapt to whatever kind of new future awaits us.

Jayme Renfro is a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

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