Chapter Fourteen

Student Debtors on Strike

By the time Hanna and I arrived back in New York, fifteen former Corinthian students had agreed to be part of a public strike declaration. To protect them from unnecessary risk, our first priority was to solidify a legal strategy. We wanted the campaign to demonstrate that there was a mechanism by which cancellation could be legally provided and by which payments could be halted in the meantime. Luke Herrine was our resident Defense to Repayment expert. Even though the law provided a clear path to relief for defrauded debtors, he told us there was no standard process for filing a DTR claim. What, we wondered, if former students submitted claims en masse while insisting that the law be applied as written to everyone?

With the help of Eileen Connor from the New York Legal Assistance Group, Herrine and I spent the early weeks of 2015 developing an application process for DTR. We put together a series of questionnaires that asked borrowers to describe how they had been defrauded. Were they made to sign documents that they didn’t understand? Were they lied to about the transferability of their credits? Were they misled about how much money they were borrowing or what jobs they would be eligible for after graduation? A borrower’s answer to any single question would determine the next in the sequence. Since DTR required debtors to show that their school had violated state law, we had to create nearly two dozen forms, one for each state where the schools were located. In addition to asking questions, we left space for debtors to describe their experience in writing. Attorneys had informed us that testimonies could potentially carry a lot of weight in the legal process. I was sure that borrowers would be eager to provide the kind of personal detail that I had heard many times by phone and in person.

The application had to be easy to access and simple to fill out online. The Debt Collective brought on Zak Greene, the designer with whom I had worked during Strike Debt. He created an online “flow” through which former students were prompted to answer those questions that were relevant to them. At the end of the process, a document was produced that lawyers could use in legal proceedings. Since all DTR filers would have to provide personal information, including social security numbers, we wondered how many borrowers would actually fill out the form. DTR was another experiment in debtor organizing. We didn’t know if it would work.

*****

The date of the striker training in San Francisco arrived in early February. Hanna, Herrine, McKelvey, Tran and I made the trip. The event was paid for via some small grants we had started to receive from individuals and from a philanthropic organization called Solidaire. Led by Leah Hunt Hendrix, Solidaire believed in financing the work of activists and organizers who were not necessarily well-established. The kind of trust Solidaire placed in us was critical to getting our first campaign off the ground. As with every other meeting that we conducted with debtors, all costs had to be paid by the Debt Collective. Borrowers could not afford plane tickets, accommodations, or other travel expenses. We had to cover every bill, including gas if borrowers drove their own cars to meet us and any lost wages they incurred by taking time off work. Given these conditions, I was thrilled that we were able to bring about a dozen people to San Francisco, including most of those debtors who planned to strike. Dawn Lueck, Nathan Hornes, and Makenzie Vasquez, who had all testified in Anaheim, were among them.

Upon our arrival at the house where we would all be staying together, we got down to work. Our first evening included a Know Your Debt session led by Lueck who had become an expert in the subject. She showed debtors how to log in to their accounts on the National Student Loan Database so they could review their loan details. Most had never logged in before. By the end of the evening, each striker knew how much they owed, their repayment status, and which servicer was authorized to collect on their debt. Almost no one had this information in advance.  

The next morning over breakfast we started with basic definitions. My colleagues and I prompted an open discussion about the term ‘debt strike.’ What did it mean? (Though everyone present was familiar with strikes conducted by workers, none of the debtors had ever been in a labor union.) We ended up defining a debt strike as a tactic for harming lenders’ profits in order to force them to meet borrowers’ demands. We also discussed how a strike could be a way to shine a light on creditors’ bad behavior as well as on underlying causes. In the case of student debt, millions were already in default and millions more were not making payments. A strike could bring attention to this mass non-payment event and allow borrowers to come out of the shadows. In that context, we reasoned, even a small number of strikers could make a big impact.

My colleagues and I usually allowed debtors to lead the conversation, especially because some of them had begun to develop various kinds of expertise. Those who had protested in Anaheim, for example, were eager to describe their experience and share what they had learned speaking directly to federal officials. Hanna and I intervened when the conversation turned to possible outcomes of a debt strike. We said that it was important to understand that democrat officials in the Department of Education may be caught off guard by a strike. “It is possible that they will want to quickly make things right to prove that they care,” we explained. The borrowers, by that point fluent in the language of naming and shaming, were enthusiastic about the prospect of officials getting a taste of the frustration and guilt that debtors often felt.

One training session was devoted to preparing strikers to speak with journalists. Since our organizing team was familiar with the questions that reporters might ask, we drew up a list of potential queries. Why do you think you should have your loans forgiven while so many others have already repaid theirs? Aren’t you worried about your credit score? Strikers discussed possible answers for each question and then practiced giving succinct responses that could serve as media soundbites. “No one should have to go into debt for education” and “for-profit students are leading the fight for free public college” were among their favorites. My colleagues and I also encouraged strikers to take charge in media interviews and to see each encounter with the press as an opportunity to say what they wanted to say. We then drafted media talking points to share with those strikers who had not made the trip to San Francisco. Finally, Hanna suggested that a catchy name could help to unify the campaign. With fifteen former students on strike, we quickly settled on the Corinthian Fifteen.

In addition to preparing for a national campaign, the training was an opportunity for strikers to bond with each other over meals or during walks to the Mission district for margaritas. Though Hanna and I had met most of the borrowers in person, most of them had not yet met each other. There was some initial awkwardness as strikers took tentative steps towards making new friends. For the first day or two, I was particularly nervous about Ann Bowers. In her fifties, she was older than everyone else, and I imagined that she felt out of place. I often found her sitting alone or smoking nervously on the front step. I wondered if inviting her had been a mistake. Her son had recently died, and I didn’t want to add to her stress. By the end of the training, though, Bowers was loosening up. She broke the ice by passing around photos of her beloved dog, Tara, and ended up getting along well with Nathan Hornes whose charm and good humor put everyone at ease.  

Some strikers became fast friends. Hanna and I had recruited Mallory Heiney during our visit to Michigan. In her early 20s, white and openly Christian, Heiney hit it off with Natasha Hornes (Nathan’s sister) who was black and gave no outward signs of being particularly religious. Heiney and Hornes discovered that they both loved pop music. One night, they stayed up laughing and singing until nearly dawn. Though the noise kept me up, I was delighted to see their friendship forming. Strikers needed to know and to trust each other.  

Trust was critical because the campaign on which strikers were about to embark required more courage than I had initially realized. On the last day of the training, for example, one striker stepped away from a meeting to take a call from her boyfriend. She was crying by the time she hung up the phone. It turned out that her partner had opposed her decision to travel alone to California to prepare for the launch of a political campaign. On the call, he had reminded her of his displeasure. The conversation had left her shaken.

Another striker, a single mother in her 30s, also spoke frequently by phone with her boyfriend whom she had met at the fast food restaurant where they both worked. From what I could hear of their conversations, she spent a lot of time reassuring him that she was thinking about him while she was away. It was clear that several of the women in the striker group had taken significant risks in their relationships to participate in the Debt Collective’s campaign. Gender played a role in all aspects of our organizing work. I frequently felt responsible for borrowers’ feelings and for whether or not they enjoyed themselves and felt cared for at Debt Collective events. I recognized that this was a kind of emotional labor often taken up by women.

As borrowers left for the airport on the last day of the training, I did not know if we would ever meet in person again. Getting to know some of them as individuals and learning more about their lives and their struggles made me even more enraged at how former Corinthian students had been treated by the school and by collectors. Even more infuriating, the Obama administration had the power to relieve their suffering and had not yet done so despite Ted Mitchell’s promises. While I knew that debt relief would not solve all, or even most, of the problems strikers faced, I was convinced that their loans were a burden that should and could be lifted.

My commitment grew a few days after the training when I saw video footage of Hollie Chafee talking about her experience at the event. “The people here helping me are very supportive, and I love them dearly,” she said. “I am on strike to take back what is mine,” she declared as her jaw tightened. Chafee seemed transformed from the shy person I had met in snowy Kalamazoo a few weeks earlier. Although the fact that she had agreed to join the strike in the first place, leaving her family to make common cause with strangers in a city she had never visited, suggested that she was not so shy after all.

While organizing was an ongoing learning experience, the goal was to win relief for former Corinthian students once and for all. On that front, I was nervous to the point of chronic sleeplessness about what the Debt Collective could actually accomplish. There was only so much a grassroots campaign like ours would be able to achieve, and I was feeling pressure to look for a real job. “Given our financial situation,” I wrote to Laura Hanna, “I think we consider winding up the Debt Collective in the spring or early summer.” She agreed that we could not continue to put in as many volunteer hours. Former students, almost all of whom were also in need of living wage jobs, were devoting a lot of time as well. While doing all we could to win relief for Corinthian strikers, I thought it was time for my colleagues and I to face the reality that unfunded debtors unions could not last. My conclusion about money was correct. But my assumption that, one way or another, the strike would be over within a few months was seriously mistaken.

*****

On February 23, 2015, the Corinthian campaign launched. The strike website included profile photographs of the Corinthian Fifteen accompanied by text that had been drafted by organizers and strikers in San Francisco: “To the Department of Education and to the loan servicers, we have only one thing to say: we owe you nothing.” Strikers demanded debt relief for all former Corinthian students as well as free public higher education for all. The site also featured a form, the first of its kind, by which borrowers could file a legal dispute of their loans via the Defense to Repayment law. The Debt Collective’s press release read, in part:

Today, fifteen former students of Corinthian Colleges declared a debt strike by      refusing to pay their federal loans. The Corinthian strike is the first act of the Debt Collective, a platform for organization, advocacy, and resistance by debtors. Just as the labor movement demands jobs, higher pay, a safe work environment, and time off, the Debt Collective will challenge the 1% creditor class by empowering members to renegotiate, resist, and refuse unfair debts while advocating for real solutions, including free education and universal health care.

Over the next few weeks, dozens of media outlets ran articles about the strike. Many of them portrayed former students as people who had not set out to be activists but who had been thrust into a situation that demanded they take action on behalf of themselves and their peers.    

Sarah Jaffe broke the story with her article “‘We Won’t Pay’: Students in Debt Take on For-Profit College Institution”. The Guardian piece featured Nathan Hornes who said that he had contacted Corinthian College “just to get information” but was immediately bombarded with phone calls from recruiters who pressured him to take out loans and lied about the high salary he would earn after graduation. After borrowing $60,000 and finding himself stuck in a low-wage job, Hornes decided to fight back. “What’s the point of not going on strike?” he said. It was one of the most succinct rationales that I had ever heard. In the article, Jaffe also quoted Ann Bowers who described how her experience at Everest had damaged her faith in education but not her readiness to fight. “I’m just leery of education in general,” she said. “But I’m not going to take it laying down, and I don’t think anyone else should either.”

To my delight, several stories about the campaign connected the dots between predation and fraud at for-profit colleges and the fact that tens of millions of people who had attended schools of all kinds were drowning in student debt. In “A Student Debt Revolt Begins,” published in the New Yorker, Vauhini Vara wrote:

[Strikers] believe that they have both ethical and legal grounds for what appears to be an unprecedented collective action against the debt charged to students who attended Corinthian schools, and they are also making a broader statement about the trillion dollars of student debt owed throughout the country . . . The strike is the result of an alliance between the students and an offshoot of the Occupy movement known as the Debt Collective.

This was the kind of coverage that we had hoped to see because it stated that higher education had become unaffordable for most families while emphasizing that Corinthian borrowers were eligible for immediate relief. “With respect to the federal debt,” Vara explained, the strikers “plan to file legal documents with the Education Department.” Though still cautious considering how the media had portrayed Occupy Wall Street three years earlier, reporters seemed to be on the side of student debtors this time. One reason for the shift was that strikers were refusing loans that had been issued by a for-profit college. But I sensed a deeper transformation. Had years of activists making noise about student debt finally succeeded in changing the narrative?  
There was no doubt that fresh arguments and new lines of inquiry had become possible. To seize the moment, several of my Debt Collective colleagues wrote articles about the strike in which they also made the case again that student debt was unjust and that public higher education should be free. In “A Strike Against Student Debt,” published in the New York Times, Astra Taylor argued that for-profit schools were a symptom of a larger problem. “Degrees earned from traditional colleges can also leave students unfairly burdened,” she wrote:

Today, a majority of outstanding student loans are in deferral, delinquency or default. As state funding for education has plummeted, public colleges have raised tuition. Private university costs are skyrocketing, too, rising roughly 25 percent over the last decade. That’s why every class of graduates is more in the red than the last.

The Debt Collective had always viewed the Corinthian campaign as a way to argue that mass indebtedness could only be addressed by an economic program that funded public goods. Taylor’s success in spreading the word was a result of that collective effort. Indeed, by this point my colleagues and I were in constant communication: writing too many emails, discussing articles, making fun of our enemies, and brainstorming ways to improve the campaign. After years of stewing in the soup of debt resistance, it would have been nearly impossible to separate any one founder’s contribution from anyone else’s.

That is not to say that disagreements were uncommon. We frequently sparred over tactical questions and had long discussions about how to be confrontational without undermining our cause. We all agreed on one thing above all: the strike was a way to demonstrate that ordinary people could use their debt as leverage to force those in power to cede to their demands. That broad consensus allowed us to keep pushing forward.

In her NYT article, Taylor did just that. “What if more people from all types of educational institutions and with all kinds of debts followed the example of the Corinthian Fifteen and strategically refused to pay back their loans?” she wrote. Doing so would allow debtors to demand “full student debt cancellation” as well as “a better way of funding higher education altogether.” I could hardly believe that I was reading those words in one of the world’s most widely read outlets. One article–even many of them–didn’t necessarily mean anything would change. At the same time, something was happening. And that had to mean something.

Debt strikers remained in demand for media interviews during the month of March. Hanna and Taylor largely coordinated those requests, assuring that borrowers got a chance to tell their stories. On Democracy Now! the journalist, Juan González, introduced LaTonya Suggs, who joined the live broadcast via satellite. “In November,” he said, “Suggs spoke at a Department of Education hearing in Anaheim, California. She drew cheers from the crowd as she returned her graduation cap to DOE officials.” González then asked Suggs to explain why she was on a debt strike. “The Department of Education failed me,” she said, noting that she was “an African American single mother living in low-income housing.” González’s co-host, Amy Goodman, asked Suggs why she had enrolled in school. “I took the necessary steps. . . to better my life in America,” she explained. These were not lines scripted in advance. With the benefit of experience, debt strikers needed little help arguing their case.

Some borrowers wrote op-eds to keep the pressure on the Department of Education. The Washington Post published a piece by Mallory Heiney. In “I Refuse to Pay Back My Loans,” Heiney said that she had sought a diploma in order to help others. “I entered college to become a licensed practical nurse,” she wrote.

I chose the Grand Rapids, Michigan campus of Everest, owned by Corinthian Colleges, because it promised me a high-quality program that I could finish quickly. I was eager to get my nursing degree so I could pursue my dream of working in a health clinic in Africa.

After finding herself $24,000 in debt and without the skills that she had been promised, Heiney joined the strike to shame the government into canceling her loans. “Where was the Department of Education when Corinthian began preying on students?” she asked. Convincing the public that not all debts should have to be repaid and that fraudulent student loans could be immediately cancelled had been two of the Debt Collective’s goals. Heiney’s article advanced both arguments.

Members of the Debt Collective working group participated in interviews as well. In-depth conversations with reporters gave us an opportunity to double down on our main claim that the strike was part of a larger fight for public goods and that ordinary people could use their debt as leverage to win them. “Do you object to all debt to all schools?” one reporter wanted to know. “If so, how do you expect students to pay for college?” We sent back the following reply:

The Debt Collective objects to the debt financing of basic human needs. People should not go into debt for college. We already know that debt free education is possible. The City University of New York was free from its founding in the 19th century until 1976. The University of California system was also free or nearly so for much of the 20th century. Paying for education requires public investment.

“How is a strike different from just defaulting?” another reporter asked. We replied:

A strike is a public declaration and a collective act, an about-face from the politics of individual shame and isolated suffering. Defaulting is something individuals do on their own; strikes are collaborations between multiple members of a class against the interests of (in this case) the creditor class. It's a class-based action that is part of broader struggle for a free and truly democratic system of higher education.

My Debt Collective colleagues and I were asserting a theory of social change that we had been testing and refining in private for years. It was an opportunity that felt both liberating and terrifying. For one thing, there were now fifteen debtors on the front lines calling themselves strikers. They represented many others whose lives had been devastated because they believed that college credentials would help them find better jobs.   

As media stories about the strike and the DTR law proliferated, the Debt Collective was inundated with messages from former for-profit college students. Strikers also reported being contacted by former classmates to whom they had not spoken in years. Like during the Rolling Jubilee campaign, debtors were ecstatic that someone understood their suffering and wanted to do something about it. The Everest Avengers Facebook page quickly became a gathering place for former students looking to connect with others and learn about the strike. Each morning I scrolled through dozens of new posts and private messages from people whose names were unfamiliar but who all told a similar story. Weeks earlier, I had wondered if the strike would be legible or last into the spring. Now, the Debt Collective was being flooded with interest from potential members.

Most borrowers who reached out were glad to find a community. But some were suspicious and had good reason to be. Student debtors, especially those in default, were the frequent target of scammers. Former students reported receiving phone calls and texts from strangers offering to help them get rid of their debt. “Just sign these documents and don’t forget to include your social security number.” Wary of these tricks, which some borrowers had learned about the hard way, they often asked: “how much does the Debt Collective charge?” After we explained that joining was free and that the strike and DTR were part of an organizing campaign, borrowers often posed a new series of questions. “What happens if I stop paying my loans? How do I file Defense to Repayment? How can I join the lawsuit?”

This last question was especially common. With little experience of collective action of any kind, many borrowers assumed that what was happening was recruitment for a lawsuit. When we explained that Corinthian had required students to sign an arbitration clause, making class actions unlikely, some left the group in frustration. If lawyers weren’t involved, what was the point? But others stayed, perhaps out of a desire to see what would happen next. The idea of a collective refusal of debts had caught on. As interest in the campaign mounted, by far the most common query we received was: “How do I join the strike?”

This was a question for which we did not have a good answer. The Debt Collective did not have the capacity to offer everyone who wanted to join the strike the kind of personalized support that we had offered to the Corinthian Fifteen. My colleagues and I had spent almost a year collaborating with former students. Over that period “joining the strike” had come to mean regular phone calls with organizers and fellow borrowers. It also meant that organizers knew the details of each striker’s case, including what each had studied in school, how much they owed, and which entity was servicing their loans. Up to that point, being a striker had also included meeting in person other borrowers, participating in conversations with legal experts, and learning how to talk to reporters.

The limitation of our technical capacity exemplified the problem we faced. New strikers could not even officially join the campaign online. With little money, McKelvey and Tran had created a beautiful website that featured the Corinthian Fifteen along with their demands. But updating the page required a developer to make manual changes. In one way, our wildest dreams had come true: thousands of student debtors wanted to join the Debt Collective. In a nightmarish and devastating twist, our scrappy band of volunteers could not accommodate them.

Luckily, borrowers who wanted to strike were not the only ones reaching out. Several former occupiers also contacted us, including Stephanie Palumbo, Alexis Goldstein, and Caitlin Klein. They offered to help manage the growing interest in the campaign. I sent each of them a list of former for-profit college students who wanted to join the strike. Volunteers contacted each debtor to discuss their loans, their rights, and the consequences of default. My colleague, Hannah Appel, described the process that she followed in an email.

I've had three lists of names, contacted all people listed by phone, voicemail, email and text. In other words, each person on my lists has gotten a phone message, a text, and an email from me. Often two texts and two calls. I've spoken to perhaps six of those twenty-odd people. Of those six, only two were strikers. Most were guarding their credit score or unwilling to suffer default consequences. This seems pretty standard.

Appel’s experience confirmed that organizing a debt strike could never simply be declared from on high. It required huge amounts of human labor. While volunteers laid the groundwork for an expansion of the Corinthian campaign, I grew increasingly depressed about our lack of capacity.  

One bright spot was that what the Debt Collective lacked in infrastructure and resources it made up for in enthusiasm. The members of the Corinthian Fifteen were over the moon about the attention their cause was receiving in the media. I often received messages from individual strikers asking what more they could do. Heiney emailed from Michigan: “I was wondering if you had any suggestions about how to guide my classmates. I tried to send out a group message on Facebook but, because they do not know much of what’s going on behind the scenes, it was hard to explain.”

Heiney wanted to organize with debtors in her community, but she didn’t know how to do so. What she had experienced “behind the scenes”–the work of planning and executing a campaign while learning and bonding with others–was not something she could easily translate locally. What Heiney needed was training, an organizing program, and, ideally, some money. I was despondent that we did not have the resources to provide those things to her. Instead, I helped Heiney craft a message to her friends. We updated them on the campaign and encouraging them to tell their friends to join us on social media. It felt paltry and insignificant.  

As much as I focused on money as a major reason for our lack of capacity, I knew that resources were not the only barrier to building an organization. The Debt Collective needed to implement a structure that would help us navigate the terrain that we had already entered. In one working group meeting, Taylor suggested that we form a non-profit organization. She wrote:

We would need an executive director and perhaps a board of directors. We need to think about whether we want to do this. It is clear that we need a decision-making system. We’ve mostly been operating on a friendship model, and that kind of operation is limited. Can we come up with a structure that is flexible but where we know who is ultimately responsible for any resources and for decision making in the group?

These were the right questions and difficult issues to address for people who had met as a result of an informal protest encampment in New York City. Were we really willing to dedicate potentially years of our lives to debtor organizing, especially since success would be hard to come by and several members of the working group already had full-time jobs? Even if we decided to take the plunge, did it make sense to try to raise funds and then formalize into a legal entity? Or should we formalize as a precursor to reaching out, once again, to foundations?

Whatever ultimate form the Debt Collective ought to take as an organization, scaling up our operations seemed essential. Closing up shop, a plan I had floated weeks earlier, now seemed irresponsible considering that hundreds of former students were beating down our door. I wrote to my former Strike Debt colleague, Nicole Hala, with whom I had stayed in touch. “I don’t want to be an activist doing activism anymore,” I wrote. “I want to help build institutions that address people’s material concerns as a form of power building.” What I meant was that I was less interested in screaming about the injustices of debt from the margins. Instead, I wanted to help make elected officials and creditors do the bidding of debtors, starting with those former students whose cause was so righteous and to whom justice could be so easily offered.

Chapter Fifteen