News Editor Lauren Kahme interviews the Co-Founder of The Testing Project, a grassroots movement advocating for essential workers’ protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I sat down with Caroline Clifford, GS ’20, organizer and Co-Founder of The Testing Project, a relatively new grassroots movement that spurred from the collaboration of many passionate advocates.
In their own words, The Testing Project believes that testing for essential workers “must be universal—a person’s ability to get a test must not rely on their income or immigration status.” It is this statement that motivates the ultimate mission of this movement: protecting essential workers. According to the Project’s website, the governmental definition of “essential workers” has been left purposely vague; in general, though, The Testing Project says that essential workers include “healthcare workers, laboratory personnel, law enforcement and public safety officers, first responders, food and agriculture workers, and many others in the industries including but not limited to financial services, manufacturing, delivery, and transportation.”
I consulted all of Bwog Staffers to compile questions for Caroline, and we discussed these queries with a conversation on the phone. Caroline’s responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
How do you plan on spreading the petition to students at other universities; what is your expansion plan?
This started from Dr. Jackie de Vegvar, M.D. at CUMC, Medical Director and Co-Founder of The Testing Project, reaching out to me directly asking if I could help with a letter-writing campaign. My first thought was that coronavirus can apparently live on surfaces, like paper, for up to 5 days, so maybe we should make this something virtual. *[To clarify, Dr. Jacqueline de Vegvar, M.D. at CUIMC (Medical Director of The Testing Project) reached out to Caroline directly asking if she could help with a (virtual, email-based) letter-writing campaign. They decided to take a web-based approach to make it easier for supporters to share the petition by simply sending a link.] I basically built the website up, and it has been snowballing since. I’m a poli-sci student in organizing training right now; this is the first thing I’ve done anything like this from scratch. Our whole team is really great, and we’re going with a basic grassroots organizing strategy. In the next two weeks, we’re going to be reaching out to different clubs at universities all across the country to aggregate a team of campus organizers. Once we train the organizers and include them in the brainstorming, each organizing team will create petitions for their state and the federal level. The plan is to have one key organizer and then surrounding organizers around them to facilitate the necessary writing, researching, texting, emailing, and recruiting. They would each have their own page for their campus to access their petition, and people on the back end of things handle getting these emails to state legislators. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to advocate while not going through third-party servers in order to best protect essential workers, especially from backlash in the workplace.
Do you think this project is more challenging or difficult since you’re only able to work online, and if so, how?
I think that honestly, for people who are new to organizing, we are just learning how to organize in the real world anyway. We don’t have a lot of relearning or unlearning to do. I have found strategies that were used before we went into shelter-in-place, and we’re just digging into the digital strategy. There is a lot of text out the vote, emailing, newsletters, advocacy teams, and phone banking used in normal political campaigns; all of that can still happen. The only things we can’t do are get people to sign [the petition] in person; we can’t canvas, we can’t table, and we can’t go to events or host events. People are on their computers and phones more than ever now. Something about this project that is interesting and challenging at times is that do we have essential workers on our team, but the majority of people on our team are not essential workers. Sometimes I wish we had more essential workers, but we’re new and most of the essential workers I’ve reached out to want to get involved but are afraid of getting fired. We’re trying to keep the identities of the essential workers who work with us private, which is why we have the “share your story” page on our website. People know it won’t go to their employer since it only passes through our site.
What is the estimated time frame, if any, of completing the goals you have outlined?
The mission of this project is set up in such a way where we are not seeking to be moderate or compromise with our mission. We are trying to get people to line up behind this petition, add their own words to it, and reach out to their state representatives advocating for essential workers. I would say our goal is to see free regular access to testing, both for the pathogen and for the antibodies, for all essential workers. We want to see it in a way where it won’t depend on [the worker’s] citizenship status. That’s a huge thing. We have in our petition that the U.S. government needs to level COVID-19 testing as treatment for an emergency condition under 42 U.S.C. 1396b(v). This way, we can have people tested who are currently undocumented immigrants; the last thing we want is for people to get deported and sick and not be able to get back into the country. We don’t want to put people who are already vulnerable to the government, ICE, and everything going on with the executive branch in a position where they can’t access healthcare in a pandemic. Because our goals are universal testing for all essential workers regularly; to say that will be met in the next year or two at the federal, state, and local level would be awesome. But I don’t see an end to our goal; I see us making progress and states testing more people, making better decisions, and having more decisions to make because the federal government hasn’t provided much. Firstly, we want to see states hearing people and increasing protection for essential workers, and then hopefully it gets to a point where a vaccine is available. At that point, testing becomes less necessary because there are fewer people vulnerable to getting sick; I honestly think we’ll have a vaccine before we have universal testing, but I think the amount of testing we do will have a big impact on how effective the vaccine is over the time it is distributed.
With regards to the current administration, do you think it’s likely that they’ll listen to a group of Columbia affiliates? If not, how do you plan on expanding to more right-leaning communities? Do you plan on expanding to those communities?
That’s one of the reasons we’re going to be focusing a lot of our recruitment of organizers on campuses; it’s not because we think college students are the best people to speak on this. No, I wish we could recruit essential workers to organize, but they’re busy. [soft laughing] We’re looking at who’s available, who is going to have the energy for this, and who’s probably not teaching their kids right now. While a college campus may be in a blue district, as college campuses are known to be more liberal than their surrounding areas, students who are attending the campus come from all different parts of the country and of the world. That differs by the university, of course, which is why we’re going to be reaching out to many different kinds of universities; I would love to reach out to community colleges as well. I’d love to reach out to state universities and private universities. I want to get a spread of students and volunteers who are probably at home right now in their district that may be red while their school district is blue; they can reach out to their state representative [to advocate for The Testing Project’s goals] as a constituent. There might even be some college Republicans who get behind this. There are just so many different kinds of people out there. We’re trying to get as many people as possible to speak up, and college students seem more available right now.
How has this project impacted your day-to-day life? Does it feel like a job?
I have thought about doing this full time, and it felt like I was doing it almost full time in the first few weeks because I was starting to fully develop the team and mission while doing research. Now that the team is built out pretty strongly, we got to a point where we could keep it running without taking next steps while finals/finals week was happening. Next week is between an organizing training for me and the first week of summer classes, so next week it will be more than a full-time situation. Because the team has been so supportive, I don’t think anyone is spending full time on this. Those who have more time are picking up the slack of those who don’t have as much time right now, and that’s been really nice. The amount of enthusiasm from everyone on the team has had me floored. At first, it was probably 40-50 hours per week, and then [as more of our team got built] it was probably closer to 20. This week it might be 10, and next week it could be 80. [laughing] So, it’s flexible. The more people we bring on, the easier it’ll be to lean on people; that’s really what I want to create: a team structure where people can say they’re busy [one day or week] and delegate their work. The last thing I want is for this to stress people out and they either are an essential worker or can’t help out with their family that has essential workers; we’re trying to make this really flexible.
Do you have anything else you’d like Bwog and the world to know?
There are a lot of other people in the community doing really great work, and there are people out there in the Columbia community who are doing great work specifically targeting the university and how the university is caring for its essential workers. I’ve been working with Heven Haile, CC Senator, just on staying up to date and getting connected with what’s been going on at Columbia. She’s been really helpful with bringing stuff to the Senate and advocating on behalf of essential workers from Columbia. If anyone is having any experiences at [Columbia] University or at their job or any experiences of being an essential worker, go to our website and share your story. We want to hear anything and everything. People can also go to our “contact” tab and reach out that way. I mean, it’s grassroots, so all we want to do is hear from people. [slight laughing] We’re just kind of trying to be a helpful space.
If anyone wants to get involved at Columbia, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Update May 19, 2020
*Editor’s Note: a sentence was added for clarification after the second sentence under the first question of the interview regarding the “letter-writing campaign.”
This article was modified to reflect Dr. Jacqueline de Vegvar’s title, Medical Director and Co-Founder of The Testing Project and Caroline Clifford’s title, Co-Founder of The Testing Project.
The Testing Project Banner via Facebook