Chapter Seventeen

Direct Action in New Orleans

The Shuttleworth grant meant that I would be receiving some compensation for my work as an organizer. In addition to being better able to pay my bills, I could stop working as an office temp and focus my energy on the Debt Collective. I was relieved because temp work had become bleaker by the day.

One recent job had been at an arts foundation. The office was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in one of those grand 19th century buildings that used to be a carriage house. The main office, accessed through two large metal doors on the ground floor, used to house horses. Now, it was the daily workplace of half a dozen employees briskly typing on silver laptops and sipping from tiny cups. I had long since stopped caring what the regular workers in the offices where I was temporarily placed actually did all day. Mostly, I just tried to steel myself in advance against whatever petty humiliations were about to come my way.

On this particular job, they came early. The supervisor who greeted me at the door was about 15 years old. Or at least that is what I thought when I saw her. In reality, she was probably around twenty-two, a new college graduate in her first job as an office manager. But in a slightly oversized white suit and with her black hair tied up in a ponytail, she looked like an adolescent to me. With a sinking feeling, I realized that I was turning into one of those middle-aged people who thinks everyone under thirty looks like a teenager.

By her expression, it seemed that my new colleague was equally surprised to see me standing in the lobby that morning. I imagined the thought that crossed her mind was: “what happened to this woman that she is still temping at her age?” It was a good question, one for which I did not have much of an answer. After showing me where to hang my jacket, I was taken on a tour. The building had high ceilings, was sparsely and elegantly decorated, and had a private roof deck that I never saw anyone use. In the kitchen, which was across from my office, my guide pointed enthusiastically to the gleaming espresso machine and invited me to drink all I wanted. A perk of office life.

When she told me about the work I would be doing, I almost thought it was a joke–a kind of first-day hazing ritual. But by that point I had enough experience as a temp that nothing surprised me. The foundation, I was informed, wanted to give an award to an artist. Any artist would do. The recipient could be a painter, a sculptor, even an installation artist. I was essentially told that if something looked like art to me, then it probably counted. The award itself consisted of a modest monetary sum and an invitation to attend the foundation’s upcoming gala as a special guest. This all seemed fine. I imagined that rich art foundations operating out of Upper East Side carriage houses wanted to give money to artists. What else were they supposed to do?

The problem was, my supervisor explained, that no one had yet applied to receive the award. Despite an announcement on the foundation’s social media accounts and ads in art magazines, the reaction from prospective award recipients had so far been a collective shrug. As a result, I had been hired to reach out to artists and to “strongly encourage” applications. This had to be done relatively quickly since the deadline for announcing the winner was approaching.  

I spent my first day on the job googling combinations of art terms paired with location names. For example, I typed “sculptor young Nashville” to see if I could locate any young sculptors who lived in Nashville. If nothing came up, then I would change the city or the art genre. I also scoured museum and gallery sites looking for artists who were not especially famous but whose work was well known enough that it would makes sense for them to receive an award. Every time I found a good candidate, I put the name in a spreadsheet. Next, I attempted to contact the artist or another person (such as an agent or a curator) that might be able to pass on my message.

Finally, I sent an email (the wording had been approved by my supervisor) explaining that I was a representative from a foundation in New York, that I was impressed with the artist’s work, and that I hoped that he or she would consider applying for the award. I pasted the link to the application at the bottom of each message. This task was as easy as it was tedious. By the end of my first week, I had sent dozens of messages to potential awardees. By the second week, I was adding dozens of names to the spreadsheet and sending as many emails before lunch. I was bored and miserable.

Even after I stopped temping, I knew full well that my reprieve was likely temporary. I could one day end up back in the art foundation, or someplace like it, sipping espresso while trying to give an award to an artist who didn’t yet know they wanted it.   

*****

In July of 2016 I arrived in New Orleans to participate in a direct action with former for-profit college students. Months earlier, the Debt collective had learned that a major trade group for college financial aid officers, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), would be hosting their annual conference in the city. In addition to hundreds of college employees and policy experts, student loan servicers and private lenders would also be present to sell products to loan officers who counseled college students on their options for what was euphemistically called “financial aid.” Thanks to a donation from a wealthy supporter, Laura Hanna and I were able to bring about fifteen former students and a handful of organizers to New Orleans for an event which called out for an intervention by debt strikers.  

The NASFAA conference felt like a critical opportunity to stay on the offensive during a moment when it was tempting to give in to frustration. Strikers had been severely disappointed by the Department’s announcement that it would engage in negotiated rulemaking before canceling any loans. “Neg reg” would unfold in a series of meetings in Washington that fall where government officials, lobbyists for the for-profit college industry, legal advocates, and other stakeholders would meet to debate how the Defense to Repayment law should be applied. Rules for cancelling fraudulent debts–or for not cancelling them–would be hammered out by Department officials at the end of the months-long process. Until then, borrowers would have to wait, with many enduring wage garnishment and tax refund seizures in the meantime.

The debtors who traveled to Louisiana represented another expansion of our organization. For the first time, those who had attended Corinthian College were meeting in person with borrowers from ITT Technical Institute and from the Art Institutes. This was an important moment of coalition building. The Corinthian strikers, especially the original group of fifteen, were regarded as leaders of the campaign. They took justifiable pride in that role. But that status meant that they were not always eager to see the Debt Collective’s membership expand to include new potential leaders.

The divisions and rivalries did not end there. No matter the school they attended, and despite organizers’ frequent assertions to the contrary, some borrowers assumed that they were more deserving of relief than others. This assumption was understandable considering the federal government had suggested all along that each borrower’s case would have to be reviewed individually. In that context, it was not always clear to former ITT Tech students that a debtor who wanted to be an artist merited loan cancellation just as much as someone who had enrolled in college to learn how to fix computers. Nor was it necessarily apparent to those who had attended Corinthian that debtors from schools that had not been shut down had an equally strong case for relief. Given these dynamics, I saw the New Orleans event as a way to keep the momentum of the campaign going in advance of the negotiated rulemaking process while inviting debtors from different schools to meet, discuss, and organize together.

The first of the Debt Collective’s two interventions was a social media hoax intended to advance the idea that public college should be tuition free. Each year, NASFAA awarded a prize for “the most innovate policy proposal” to come out of its conference. They called it the “Big Idea” award. Before arriving in New Orleans, Debt Collective organizers created a fake NAFSAA Twitter account using the conference branding. Then, once gathered in our hotel in the French Quarter, we used the account to announce that the Debt Collective had won the award. Our “Big idea”? Making all public colleges tuition free. Other social media accounts, some administered by allies, congratulated the Debt Collective on its surprising win.

We celebrated our victory on Twitter and Facebook where we promoted a website we had made explaining why public college should be free and how to pay for it. “America could make all public colleges free for ONLY $15 billion in new money per year,” the text read.

This is less than 1% of the federal budget. If we change our national priorities, ALL public colleges could cost zero dollars. If the federal government would only choose to stop propping up for-profit schools and the student loan industry with billions in subsidies, we could end the control that creditors have over our lives. Free tuition would cost less than the tax breaks given to just 20 corporations. Free tuition would cost less than the war on drugs. Free tuition would cost less than the Department of Defense ‘loses’ in its budget every year.

The list of programs that could be cut to pay for debt relief was a reflection of the fact that we knew we would not be taken seriously unless we responded to the question: “but how will you pay for it?” Our decision to prioritize the federal budget was one effect of the Department’s public relations campaign which had emphasized the need to protect “taxpayers” from supposed deadbeats and leeches. Though engaged in an elaborate social media hoax, we still felt pressured to demonstrate where every dollar we were asking the government to spend should come from.

Since it was true that the cost of making all public colleges free was almost nothing compared to what the US was already spending on wars and on subsidies to for-profit schools, the case was not hard to make. But the necessity of always leading with budgetary considerations when we would have preferred to talk about morality, human rights, and public goods still rankled. We were playing someone else’s game, and we knew it. Tax cuts for the rich or tax breaks for corporations, just to name two of Congress’s longstanding spending priorities, were never subjected to the same requirement. If a policy was deemed necessary, the money was simply conjured up. But because the Debt Collective’s demands required spending in ways not supported by most elected officials or their donors, we were trapped in the enemy’s logic.

Despite our ambivalence about how we were framing the argument, the “Big Idea” hoax was a success. Our announcement that we had won the award generated genuine confusion at the conference as well as online. Later that same day, the official NASFAA Twitter account issued a statement clarifying that the Debt Collective had not, in fact, won the prize. We were delighted. Soon, in a further sign our triumph, our fake NASFAA account was suspended by Twitter.

The next day the Debt Collective raised the stakes by conducting a disruptive direct action in the streets. A few weeks earlier, we had learned that NASFAA had hired local residents to put on a parade celebrating the organization, a common request of conference attendees in the Big Easy. On the day of the parade, our Debt Collective contingent waited on a street corner for the NASFAA floats to approach. As the procession came by, our rowdy group rushed into the crowd of financial aid administrators and onlookers. We threw confetti, danced, and called out in unison: “No cuts, no fees, education should be free!” Many in the street stopped to watch. I marched next to Karissa McKelvey who played her trumpet while we danced. I was pleased to see borrowers from multiple for-profit schools participating in this piece of street theater together. After 48 hours in the same city, former strangers were becoming comrades.

Breaking up the NASFAA parade with glitter bombs and chanting was just the beginning of that day’s intervention. Someone dressed head-to-toe in an alligator costume soon arrived pushing an unauthorized “float” loaded with flat screen TVs. To a soundtrack of obnoxiously loud music, the screens displayed an advertisement for a fake company that promised to ease students into debt payments with meditation while helping lenders collect biological data from loan applicants to determine whether they were likely to repay their debts.

The noise from the Debt Collective’s dissident float, along with chanting and singing by debtors, completely drowned out the official parade. Teenagers playing in a marching band that NASFAA had conscripted for its event soon packed up their instruments and left. A troupe of hired dancers stopped their footwork to watch debt strikers file through the crowd distributing hand-held fans printed with a message about free public higher education. “Keep yourself cool while reading about how affordable it would be to make public college tuition free,” borrowers announced. On a July day in the French Quarter, the fans were a big hit with parade watchers.

Some observers were annoyed at the prank and told us to get lost. But others were curious and stopped to talk. Strikers had to spontaneously communicate their goals to employees of the college financial aid industry as well as to curious passersby. I saw former students engaging in conversations that ended in arguments, while others seemed locked in thoughtful dialogues with strangers.

Later, Ami Schneider reported on her experience. “At the parade, a high school counselor and I discussed how free higher education would encourage students to strive,” she said. “So many high schoolers give up because they know ‘financial aid’ is really just a loan that they cannot afford.” Schneider glimpsed the possibility of finding common ground with almost anyone, an outcome that her experience battling intransigent federal officials had taught her not to expect.  

Laura Hanna had been the primary organizer of the parade intervention. A massive local hit which was covered by several media outlets, it helped us meet our goal of keeping the pressure on the Department of Education. My main contribution to the New Orleans gathering was up next. After hearing from borrowers who had questions about the Debt Collective’s politics and after many informal conversations with debtors who wanted to talk more about inequality, public goods, racism and other issues, I decided to attempt a political education event. I planned to use the opportunity of the New Orleans gathering to make the connection between the Debt Collective’s current campaign and the broader history of class struggle in the US. This was an ambitious goal, and I would have preferred several days to facilitate discussions on the topic while asking borrowers to conduct their own research on labor strikes and other actions that had occurred where they lived. Since I had just a few hours, I prepared a presentation that I hoped would encourage us all to think beyond for-profit colleges and even beyond higher education.

On the morning of my presentation, which was the last day of our gathering, everyone met in the conference room of our hotel. “We have all heard about strikes by workers, and some of us may have even participated in them,” I began. “Some of you in this room are debt strikers, which is a different kind of strike. But where did strikes start?” While displaying photographs from the era on the wall behind me, I described a time during the early 20th century when waterfront ports were critical for moving goods in and out of the country. “In 1919” I explained, “dockworkers at the port of San Francisco walked off the job to demand higher pay and safer working conditions. But not all dockworkers were unionized, and separate unions represented different groups of workers. This lack of unity meant the strike did not last.”

I then turned to the 1930s, a period known for widespread labor militance. “About one in five workers went on strike in that decade alone,” I explained while displaying additional archival images. “Having learned from the 1919 failure,” I continued,

the new generation changed strategies. Organizers decided that everyone who worked on the docks along the west coast had to walk off the job together. The strike that unfolded ultimately involved hundreds of thousands of workers from Seattle to San Diego. Next, unions in the city of San Francisco called for a general strike in support of the dockworkers. That strike shut down the city for several days. The whole event ended up lasting 83 days. This time, strikers were able to win many of their demands.

Before wrapping up my painfully brief summary of the decade, I displayed a slide called “Strategic Lessons From the 1930s Era of Labor Organizing.” I listed three bullet points: standing together; coordinating with people in different geographic regions; working with everyone in a similar situation towards achieving common goals. We discussed each bullet point and how it related to our own struggle for debt relief. Borrowers weighed in with questions and shared their own experiences as workers and as debtors. They easily made the connection about the need to unify their ranks as strikers from different schools. To win, we needed each other.

Finally, my presentation moved ahead 30 years, to the 1960s. I showed images from the civil rights movement including sit-ins and street marches from the era. “The civil rights movement is something many of us learned about in school,” I said. “A lot of people don’t know that, before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was on the verge of launching something called ‘The Poor People’s Campaign.’ I displayed a flier from the campaign with a list of demands including ‘decent jobs and income’ and ‘the right to a decent life.’ I showed video clips of Dr. King speaking about wealth inequality. “We now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty,” he said. “The question is whether or not we have the will.” I ended my presentation by describing how the civil rights leader had planned to bring thousands of people to Washington DC to set up tents in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The occupants of the tent city planned to demand $30 billion in public spending to fund well-paying jobs for all. As I concluded, borrowers asked questions and discussed this aspect of King’s legacy which most said they had not known about before. Strikers wanted to know, above all, how to invite more student debtors to join the movement for free public college and debt cancellation.

Though it was too short and necessarily simplified, the political education session encouraged debtors and organizers to discuss our campaign in a broader context. Indeed, several former students noted that they shared an economic condition–they were all poor–as well as a student debt balance sheet. It was the first time I had heard anyone in that group reference social class. I concluded that a fully functioning debtors union would have to have opportunities for political education, including presentations, readings and group discussions on topics rooted in borrowers’ experiences and in their intellectual interests. By the time strikers headed to the airport that evening, though, I already suspected that such a program would never come to be. Study and reflection were luxuries that none of us could afford any more than we could afford to pay our debts.

Chapter Eighteen