A few weeks ago, in the midst of the pandemic, Miguel Blancarte Jr. left his policy consulting work behind to become the site manager for the CORE COVID-19 community testing facility at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. The testing center opened in mid-May.
“I’ve gotten so many good vibes seeing people come to the site. Being able to get to know my neighbors and community more during this pandemic is, I guess, one of the silver underlinings from all of this madness,” he said.
The CORE site, which operates out of the school’s parking lot, offers free tests for everyone, including people who are uninsured or undocumented.
Every morning, Miguel and his team set up tents, computers and tables next to orange cones and porta potties, and at night they break it all down and store it until the next day.
The team relies on internet hotspots to check people in for their appointments.
“The clouds, the weather, the gloominess all affect the hot spots,” Miguel said. So people coming to get tested often get frustrated, but he reminds his staff that everyone responds to stress differently and they need to be patient.
“I tell them on a daily basis: ‘You guys are troupers. I just thank you guys for being here and for continually showing up and wanting to provide this service to these communities that you're a part of,’” he said “Because it's so true that they are the reason why we are able to provide the testing for the people.”
I left the policy world to run a community testing center
But despite all that, Miguel, who earned a business degree from Georgetown University and was an Aspen Institute Ricardo Salinas scholar, says he’s found his purpose in this new job.
“Making six figures would be nice if I entered the corporate world, but what would that mean for my heart and mind? And my community?” he asked.
Miguel grew up in Little Village, where he still lives, and said the community there has been hard hit by COVID-19 and access to testing and information about the disease has been an issue. It’s something he experienced himself. After traveling through Miami for work in mid-March—the same time the governor of Florida closed the beaches to spring breakers—he said he was exposed to the coronavirus.
Upon returning home to Chicago, he felt some symptoms and wanted to get tested. He called 311 for testing information and was given the name of a hospital that was a 34 minute walk from his house. But when he got there, he was told by a nurse practitioner they were not testing people.
Miguel said it was frustrating to get wrong information. Based on his policy experience, he was alarmed at the “breakdown in communication between the city and residents, about something so important as accurate information about COVID-19 testing,” he said.
This gave him a desire to be part of the solution. Running the testing facility is a perfect mix of his skills and the roles he’s had in the past: running political campaigns, consulting for immigration law firms and consulting on foreign policy.
It’s not just about testing for COVID-19, it’s about systemic change
Miguel said this week, as protests are taking place in Chicago and across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd, he’s become even more convinced that the work he’s doing at the testing center is vital to the long-term health of his own as well as neighboring communities.
“It’s not just about Little Village—it’s about my community of underserved black and brown people,” he said.“It’s about providing equity in testing.”
Miguel said his role as the manager of the testing site is not just to make sure that the people who come to get tested have a smooth experience, or that his staff is kept safe. But it’s also to build relationships and partnerships with community organizations in places like North Lawndale and Garfield Park.
“I want black communities that are underserved and underfunded to come to the testing site and to know that we’re here,” he said.
And Miguel said addressing the lack of accessible testing is just one piece of trying to fix other systemic problems in black and brown communities like police violence and a lack of affordable housing and healthcare.
“It's that drive of wanting to help and improve my community and underserved communities,” he said. “You know, wanting to alleviate some pain and some hurt that has been done to our communities.”
Lynnea Domienik is the intern for Curious City.