Our society is built on the principle of empowerment: the idea that every person contributes. This is how we help others through the crisis.
Amidst calls for a national shutdown, and with a growing number of states issuing shelter-in-place orders in response to the coronavirus, Americans are wondering what comes next. They’re looking for a better way.
Other countries have responded in ways that mirror their national character. We must do the same. China took an authoritarian approach. Korea relied heavily on technology and information sharing. While we can learn from the experience of others, the United States should choose an approach that reflects the best of who we are as a country — a distinctly American approach.
Our society is built on the principle of empowerment: the idea that every person has something to contribute. When we have lived up to this ideal, our country has accomplished great things. When we have given into the opposite impulse — to control people — we have suffered unspeakable tragedies. The principles that have driven our progress are no less important during crisis times. Indeed, this is when our principles matter most.
Facing a struggle that’s already affecting millions of people, we need to empower every person to contribute in their own way, helping others weather the storm. All of us have a role to play, and all of our roles matter. As with other challenges in our history, this crisis must be tackled from the bottom up.
A uniquely American approach would look to contributions from government, businesses, educators, and people from all walks of life, in every community, to find innovative ways of assisting each other.
Charitable initiatives around the country
Some such efforts are already underway. Take what’s happening in business. While businesses based on big crowds, like the NBA, have made the hard decision to close, others that can operate while protecting public health are doing what it takes to keep grocery aisles stocked and medical professionals supplied. Distilleries are converting their kettles and stills to make hand sanitizer. Technology companies are applying data analytics to track the spread of the virus and keep the public informed.
In education, when schools closed, creative minds found new ways to serve students. OpenStax at Rice University expanded access to its online customizable courses, offering a record number of students a chance at individualized learning. Yes Every Kid launched #LearnEverywhere, a free resource that aggregates curriculum for the parents now home with more than 30 million kids.
Communities are coming together in a spirit of cooperation and empowerment. People are meeting their neighbors’ needs in ways that only they can because they know best what works and what doesn’t in such specific situations.
Café Momentum, a Dallas-based restaurant that employs kids from the juvenile justice system, can no longer serve customers for dinner. So they’re now making 16,000 packaged meals per week for kids who depend on school lunches. The Phoenix, a remarkably effective addiction recovery group has moved online, potentially preventing tens of thousands of people from relapsing during isolation.
On March 26, Stand Together and the Family Independence Initiative — one of America’s most effective anti-poverty groups — launched #GiveTogetherNow, an online effort to help vulnerable families get immediate and direct cash assistance from everyday Americans looking to do their part. 100% of donations will go to those who have been hit hardest by the coronavirus crisis and resulting economic downturn.
The rapid rise of many similar charitable initiatives, tailored to local communities, is perhaps the most heartening story in the current crisis.
Right response in a difficult time
Policymakers also have a critical role to play in a crisis like this. By acting to empower those in a position to help, their decisions have undoubtedly saved lives. Many acted fast to break down barriers standing in the way of an effective medical response. At least 18 states and D.C. have removed restrictions ontelemedicine. Others are relaxing licensing laws that prevent qualified medical professionals from assisting patients. These are examples of the right response in this difficult time: Creating an environment in which people can help solve the problems in their communities, in cooperation with others.
Contrast that with the control-approach: open-ended business shutdowns that can prevent critical supply chains from getting products and services to those who need them most. Better to empower people who can responsibly operate businesses with effective social distancing and without endangering public health, as some governors have. Not only does this keep people employed but it ensures everyone has what they need to do their part — something that will be even more critical in the weeks and months ahead.
After a slow start, and as the challenges ahead intensify, we must embrace the best of our country. That means resisting the temptation to close off avenues for individuals and organizations who can find new and creative ways to do more to help others. It means relying on the ingenuity of every American to help make it through.
That’s the American way. Indeed, it’s the only way.
Charles Koch, chairmanand CEO of Koch Industries, is the founder of the philanthropic community Stand Together, where Brian Hooks is chairman and CEO. Stand Together partners with many of the organizations mentioned in this column.