20.1 Innovative Thinkers: Letter from the Editor

Debbie Z. Harwell, Editor

Do you ever wonder when you see a new product, “Why didn’t I think of that?” (Sometimes followed by, “I’d be rich!”).

A Google search for the question, “how do we get ideas?” returned 4.4 billion responses. (That’s billion with a “B”!). So, I did what most of us do and focused on the first page of results. Many were blogs on positive life choices, but one entry written for Scientific American in 2018 caught my eye. In it, Dr. Abraham Loeb, the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, posed and answered a similar question, “How could we cultivate an environment that nourishes ideas? The recipe starts with creating a culture that encourages informal questioning and inquiry, tolerates mistakes and promotes innovation.”

As we worked on the 100 Years of Stories: Documenting a Century at the University of Houston (UH) project, we came across hundreds of innovative thinkers among our alumni, faculty, and administrators who found that environment at UH. They thrive in a culture where they can freely explore and discuss questions in their disciplines and across disciplines to find intersections between them because no area of study operates in a vacuum. In those free-flowing conversations, questions are posed, and new theories tested. Loeb’s mention of the need to tolerate mistakes is also key. Unshackled from the fear of failure, people explore ideas that may seem impossible at first but, instead, become the next great discovery.

Our goal with 100 Years of Stories is to bring to light the under-told stories of innovative thinkers who have made a difference in our community and beyond the Houston city limits. Many of those people may be well-known in their fields but less so to the public at large.

John Lienhard’s program Engines of Our Ingenuity on KUHF, Houston Public Media, has always fascinated me. Covering centuries of history, over 3000 episodes explore the things innovative thinkers have conceived to advance the arts, education, science, engineering, medicine, philosophical thought, and more. Some of these programs explore work by people considered the greatest minds of all time, while other installments highlight extraordinary ideas from those we think of as regular people.

Marguerite Ross Barnett, who served as University of Houston president from 1990 to 1992, brought an innovative approach to her administrative role through community involvement. She created networks with business and community leaders, as well as connections between the university and public schools, that set UH on a course to begin earning its reputation as a research university in keeping with the level of work being done there. 

As a young boy growing up in New York, Nicolás Kanellos realized he could not find books that portrayed Latinos and Latino culture, even though they were widely available when he visited family in Puerto Rico. That sparked an idea that led to the founding of Arte Público Press, the nation’s oldest and largest publisher of Latino-oriented books, and more recent efforts to recover and digitize Spanish-language published materials.

The article on self-described political junkies Katy Caldwell and Nancy Sims demonstrates how their friendship created the safe space for them to freely explore their passions for politics and caring for others during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. They made their marks working in political campaigns, serving in office or on the staff of elected officials, teaching, and in health care. Their time at UH and their friendship created the culture for their innovative thinking to flourish.

The Art Guys, Michael Galbreath and Jack Massing, brought innovative concepts to their art, including pieces that they wore, such as SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man. However, their campus installation, The Statue of Four Lies, challenges viewers to think creatively about the meaning of the piece, its codex, and the many ways they can interact with the statue.

Other articles also detail the approach of innovative thinkers. The “From the Archive” article explores the push by students to desegregate the UH campus and the administrators who, at times reluctantly, oversaw that transition. The Charity Guild of Catholic Women formed in 1922 to reduce the high infant mortality rates in Houston’s Mexican community. Starting out with fifty-nine women who each donated a dollar, they have taken that seed and grown into an organization that awarded $7 million dollars to charities for children over the last twenty-five years. Following the flooding from Tropical Storm Allison, those impacted within the Greens Bayou watershed formed alliances that led to creation of the nonprofit Greens Bayou Coalition. Today it works to improve the quality of life through flood mitigation, economic development, and new parks, trails, and greenspace.

One of our goals at the Center for Public History and Houston History magazine is to train students who will be the next generation of innovative thinkers so they too can make a difference in their communities. The 100 Years of Stories project, supported by the gift from Carey C. Shuart, has set our students on that path by giving them unique opportunities to meet and be inspired by the history makers they have written about here.

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