What if the president of the United States, along with Congress, cancelled student debt and made public college tuition free? Just a few years ago, these goals would have seemed like the pie-in-the sky dreams of a marginal sect. Today, free public college is supported by major presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The idea of canceling student debt is also gaining traction, as several members of Congress have publicized their support for reducing or even eliminating a burden shared by more than 40 million people who are disproportionately black, brown, and poor.
How did such a sea change occur in just a few years? While nominating and voting for candidates who support structural changes in the way we pay for and distribute public goods is important, organizing from the bottom up is critical to transformative change. Such work is a force that often goes unseen and undervalued until ideas generated in grassroots spaces emerge into mainstream discourse which has the effect of effacing their roots in a one-time radical fringe. In this piece, I want to focus on how activists and academics can come together to develop the capacities of grassroots organizing and thus bring such a vision closer to reality.
One of the entities that has contributed to the growing support for debt relief and free public college is the Debt Collective, a membership organization that I co-founded in 2014. The Debt Collective has roots in Occupy Wall Street, a movement in which thousands of people protesting inequality and the outsize role of the financial sector in the economy occupied Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan before being violently evicted two months later. Our founding team’s early work included launching the New York City-based group, Strike Debt, which went on to publish The Debt Resister’s Operations Manual and inspired other chapters to form around the US. In 2012, we also launched the Rolling Jubilee fund, a public education campaign that bought and cancelled more than $30 million in medical, student debt, and court fines and fees for people at random. While it had a positive effect on thousands of lives, the Rolling Jubilee was never intended as a solution to the problem of mass indebtedness. It was, instead, a public education campaign that successfully demonstrated the exploitative nature of debt markets.
The Debt Collective is an ambitious effort to build on lessons learned from our prior work. While there are labor unions for workers and membership organizations for leftists of various stripes, there has been until now no attempt to create a mass organization for people in debt, a group which includes three quarters of Americans and for whom collective action on a state-based or national scale is the only long-term solution. We regard mass indebtedness as a characteristic feature of neoliberal capitalism and believe that broad social transformation must come from the bottom up.
If we want such movements to succeed, collaborations between scholars and organizers are critical. The first reason is that most academics are constrained in what they can say or do to advance transformative goals. Most institutions are not merely indifferent to scholarly or activist efforts that attempt to question or challenge power; they are actively hostile to them. One need only reflect on the truncated career of American Studies scholar, Steve Salaita, whose academic employers quickly showed him the door after he posted a series of tweets expressing angry solidarity with Palestinians. “For all its self-congratulation,” Salaita wrote in a recent reflection on his prior career, “the academy’s loftiest mission is a fierce compulsion to eliminate any impediment to donations.”
I would add that another guiding mission of the academy is to enroll students, which brings me to the second reason partnerships between academe and organizers are critical. In our current system most students have to borrow in some form in order to attend college. In our era of austerity, then, educational institutions that run on debt are in conflict with those who critique such models or who are working to concretely transform them. All the more reason for activists, who share many of the goals of radical scholars, to work in collaboration with those who may have access to resources but whose institutional affiliations may limit them in other ways.
Unfortunately, so far, this has not happened. In fact, activist-led organizations are often treated more like the objects of study than as potential partners. Debt Collective founders and our members are frequently sought out by researchers. In almost all cases, the benefit to the professional is obvious while it is less clear what the Debt Collective or our members stand to gain from such interactions. Examples are numerous. There was the graduate student wanted to be put in touch with people who had had their loans cancelled to find out how much their personal financial situation had improved as a result; another researcher wanted to be allowed to attend internal meetings and strategy sessions so that he could write about (and presumably evaluate) our internal processes. We are constantly contacted by scholars who are looking to interview debtors in distress, but almost never by scholars looking to help build reciprocal links to strengthen our mutual work.
By directly supporting movement building work, scholars can create the conditions for putting knowledge into practice as practitioners in turn expand and enrich academic knowledge. Indeed, I would push this dialectic even further and argue that directing institutional resources to organizing could be part of a long overdue admission on the part of academics that the distinction between thinking and doing — and the hierarchy implied — is false.
While I am perfectly cognizant of and sympathetic to the fact that academics need to produce work in order to find and keep regular employment, and while I recognize the value in sometimes turning an outsider’s evaluative gaze on the work of organizers, the fact is that if that is the only kind of relationship scholars intend to have with activists, neither of us will be around for very long. While foundation support, individual donors and membership dues are part of the solution to the problem that social change must be resourced, academia has a further role to play.
One solution for a more reciprocal relationship is modeled by UCLA’s Institute on Inequality and Democracy. IID’s mission includes partnering with organizers and activists and providing unrestricted funds to organizations that conduct critical work on behalf of the dispossessed including debtors, those displaced by gentrification, and the formerly incarcerated. The money can then go directly to the work of the activists. It doesn’t need to fund academically legible outcomes (such as a book or a conference) but can actually fund activists’ needs. For example, the Debt Collective used IID money to fly debt strikers to Washington DC to meet with officials at the Department of Education; we used IID money to pay researchers unattached to the University; and we have used it to gather organizers from around the country to come together for annual retreats. As Robin Kelley wrote in Freedom Dreams:
Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression. For example, the academic study of race has always been inextricably intertwined with political struggles […] Similarly, gender analysis was brought to us by the feminist movement […] thinking on gender and the possibility of transformation evolved largely in relationship to social struggle.
Debt Collective organizers and members are thinkers and doers because both are required to advance radical social change. We offer services including debt disputes which help individuals dispute debts to creditors, collectors, and to the credit reporting agencies. We also plan and conduct actions and campaigns to advance broad demands for debt cancellation. Since its founding, for example, Debt Collective members have won more than $1 billion in relief for people who attended fraudulent for-profit colleges. Our organizing team accomplished this by collaborating with former for-profit borrowers themselves. These debtors, a multi-racial group of working-class people from different regions of the country, led a campaign to pressure the Department of Education to cancel their debt. Their victory demonstrates the power of grassroots organizing. But there is much more to do. Since people go into debt not because they are lazy or irresponsible but because they lack access to public services, we must also engage in long-term fights for broad-based debt relief as well as for social policies (including free public college and Medicare for All) that make it unnecessary for people to take out loans for basic needs. Moreover, we know that ending mass indebtedness tomorrow would not fix economic or racial inequality. But engaging in these fights in the context of addressing people’s immediate material needs can help us build the kind of working-class power that can’t be ignored and that can serve as an institutional base for challenging class society writ large.
These are ambitious goals that cannot be achieved in a top-down fashion. Grassroots organizing must be resourced in order to succeed over the long term. To be truly rooted in a shared desire for economic justice, collaborations between organizers and scholars must include resource sharing as well as more genuine dialogue. It is critical that academics and organizers begin to work together to create new kinds of relationships with an eye towards achieving concrete goals. Such alliances are in fact critical to our survival. Once we completely jettison unhelpful and inaccurate notions of “thinking” and “doing” that still plague our politics, for example, what could we accomplish? We at the Debt Collective are eager to explore some possibilities. Such work is critical to actually improving conditions on the ground for organizations like the ours which, in turn, helps shift the terrain on which we all walk. To put it bluntly, whether it is done via scholarship or through art or in the college classroom, visioning a more fair and just world simply doesn’t count unless all of us, one day, get to live in it.
Ann Larson is Co-founder of The Debt Collective.