Chapter Thirteen

Recruiting Debt Strikers

A few days later, Latonya Suggs posted on the Everest Avengers Facebook page. “I’m on strike. I’m not giving the government or that school a dime,” she wrote. “I’M ON STRIKE. It was never my fault. I didn’t do anything wrong. GO ON STRIKE EVERYONE.” Suggs was passionate about refusing to pay her student debt. And she wanted others to join in the fight. Most of her fellow debtors applauded Suggs’s defiance. They agreed that it was time to turn up the heat. But some thought that an outright refusal to pay was too risky. Tasha Courtright replied: “You do know they can seize your paycheck, right? I’m just as against the school as you, but I have no fight left in me and no time left. I’m fighting just to keep my home right now.” The discussion prompted Debt Collective organizers to clarify that we were not recommending that anyone stop paying their loans. A strike, we said, could be organized among those already in default.

Suggs’s declaration–an act which concretized years of activist theorizing–raised challenging questions. My colleagues and I had to now ask ourselves what a debt strike should actually look like in practice and who might qualify to join one. While many Corinthian borrowers were not making payments on their loans, for example, a significant number were enrolled in temporary non-payment programs such as deferral and forbearance. Could those debtors call themselves strikers considering they might one day resume payments? Other borrowers had signed up for Income Based Repayment, a program that indexed monthly payments to income. Many former students earned so little that their payments amounted to zero dollars. Could debtors who were technically in good standing with creditors join a strike? After years of thinking abstractly about strikes, such technical questions became suddenly urgent. We could not afford to get into heated debates or engage in endless discussions. Introducing the first student debt strike in US history in a clear and compelling way was too important. People were counting on us. For those reasons, I worried that including borrowers in forbearance, deferment, and IBR risked rendering incoherent a key concept on which we hoped to build an organization.  

However a student debt strike was ultimately to be defined, increasing the Debt Collective’s membership base was the first step. With help from members of the Corinthian Collective, our working group spent the first months of 2015 engaged in a strike recruitment drive. We contacted former students, told them that debtors in their situation were planning to strike, and invited them to join the campaign. The recruitment effort was one of the most difficult and tedious processes that we had yet undertaken as a fledging organization, trumping even the intense administrative and emotional work that had been required to launch the Rolling Jubilee. The Debt Collective had hundreds of debtor names in its database, and the Everest Avengers Facebook page had thousands of members. We wanted every one of them to know that a strike was coming.

I took on the role of sending debtor names and contact information to our team of volunteer recruiters. It was not easy to get former students to pick up calls. Wary of collectors, most borrowers didn’t respond to callers whose numbers they didn’t recognize. Of those who did answer, some were paying their debt (or trying to do so). Many others didn’t understand why a stranger, or someone they knew only via Facebook, was calling to talk to them about a political campaign. Some borrowers, mostly men, resisted what sounded like a project intended to publicize their poverty. A significant percentage were curious about the strike but unwilling to commit. They asked to be contacted again later, after others had taken the first step. On average, for every ten phone calls, one person might express interest in joining the campaign. Among that group, only a few followed through by submitting a bio and a profile photo for our website.

On every call, recruiters informed borrowers of the consequences of default. We reminded even those who were already not paying their debt that creditors had various draconian collection tactics at their disposal. I still worried that we were not doing enough to warn people of the risks. I wondered if creditors and collectors would harass strikers as a form of punishment. What about the government’s response? Would people participating in a debt refusal campaign be more likely to have their tax returns seized? To prepare for those frightening possibilities, Herrine contacted attorneys to get advice and to seek support for borrowers who were about to engage in a new form of activism. Robyn Smith, of the National Consumer Law Center, liked the idea of a debt strike but warned that we may be stepping into a mine field. Corinthian College, she said, might try to sue us for disparaging the school in public.

While never sanguine about the risks, some borrowers were enthusiastic about assuming them. One of the first people I recruited was Ashlee Schmidt, a young woman from Florida. Schmidt did not let me finish my speech about the consequences of default before announcing that she wanted to join the strike. “I can’t pay and anything bad that could happen to me already has,” she said. In the bio she submitted, Schmidt, who was unemployed, wrote a scathing denunciation of Corinthian’s predatory tactics. She also anticipated a line of attack that would be used against debtors like her. “What happened to me is not my fault,” she wrote.

I believed in the American Dream and that education was the key to achieving it. I was the first person in my family to attend college. I wanted to make my family proud and be able to take care of my disabled father. I studied hard and earned a 4.0 grade point average at Everest. Almost four years later, however, I can't find a job. I also discovered that Everest defrauded me by maxing out my federal student loans without my knowledge. I am now on strike.

Doing everything right was a reoccurring theme in many borrowers’ stories. The vast majority of former Corinthian students wanted the public to know that, not only had they played by the rules, they had enrolled in college to help loved ones including, in Schmidt’s case, her disabled father.

Another borrower who emphasized her clean conscience was Ann Bowers from Tennessee. After a call with a recruiter, Bowers declined to join the campaign. But she soon started searching online for stories about Corinthian. After reading article after article about how the school had been investigated for fraud and after talking with former students on Facebook, she changed her mind. “People should not be taken advantage of because they have the desire to better themselves and their futures through education,” Bowers wrote in her striker bio.  

Corinthian Colleges has been allowed to commit fraud and predatory lending without consequences. My anger isn’t just about the money. I missed out on so many family and life events taking classes. Looking back, I realized how much the school has taken from me, including denying me a leave of absence to mourn when my youngest son committed suicide. Students have received no protection from this fraudulent behavior. We deserve to have this debt erased and the chance for a quality education  like we were promised.

Like Army veteran Chris Miller who had spoken from the lectern in Anaheim, Bowers was less angry about her debt than about the fact that no one had suffered consequences for screwing her out of a real education. She also touched on a recurring theme in strikers’ narratives: former students could never get back the time they had spent earning fraudulent degrees. They had declined other opportunities, skipped family events, and, in Bowers’ case, missed the chance to fully mourn her son’s death.

Time wasted attending a for-profit college was just the beginning of the devastation for Jessica Madison. Already in default on her loans by time I spoke with her during the recruitment drive, Madison was stuck in a financial sinkhole from which she could not free herself. “Admissions staff at Everest promised that I would receive job placement,” she wrote in her bio.

But the only help they gave was to send me job ads that I could have found myself on Craigslist. After going $33,000 in debt, I was not able to officially graduate because I owed the school money. Still, I didn't give up. I moved to a new state to try and look for work in the Paralegal field. But I ended up worse off than before. My tax refund has been garnished by debt collectors for years. And my wages are now being garnished by a debt collection agency. Collectors make money if I pay my loans, and they make money if I don't. The only people who lose are the students.

In just a few sentences, Madison explained how the student debt system was rigged. When a debtor can’t or won’t pay, there are mechanisms already in place that lenders can use to target borrowers. When students are preyed upon and defrauded, they have no recourse.

With the addition of Schmidt, Bowers, and Madison, the Debt Collective had recruited about a dozen strikers within a few weeks of making phone calls. Conversations with individual Corinthian borrowers were revealing because former students were eager to share specific details of their experience at the school. Schmidt said that Everest had fraudulently taken out loans in her name. Bowers described being denied a leave of absence. Madison explained that so-called employment counselors had sent her job ads from Craigslist. Others told similar stories. One borrower wanted me to know how a particular teacher had stopped showing up to class in the middle of the semester. Another was furious that a required course had been inexplicably eliminated from the schedule. A third explained that a financial aid counselor had interrupted a class to pressure her to sign a loan document. I frequently hung up the phone feeling exhausted at the labor it took to listen to each person tell an extremely detailed story that, despite its specificity, reminded me of all the others I had heard.  

After dozens of calls, I was ground down and depressed by all the pain and fury. I had also come to regard the litany of accounts of suffering as posing a serious organizing problem. Many former students seemed convinced that their personal story made them uniquely eligible for loan relief. Borrowers were so intent on describing their individual harm that it sometimes felt like they were trying to out-do each other. It was as if they were operating from a template in which relief, were it to be offered at all, would only be dispersed to the truly deserving. Debtors felt that they needed to demonstrate that they were in that group, an urgency that did not subside when I explained that strikers planned to demand loan cancellation for all former Corinthian students.

The accumulation of personal horror stories taught me that a Debt Collective organizer’s main job would be finding ways to convince aggrieved individuals that finding common cause with others was the surest way to win relief. The barriers to that kind of coalition building were immense. They included the relative isolation of former students, many of whom had taken courses online or had left school years earlier, as well as a widespread cultural tendency to regard economic problems as the product of personal choices. My colleagues and I were challenging entrenched narratives about the supposed impossibility of cancelling student debt and of making higher education free via interventions in the media. Potential strikers’ intense focus on their personal experiences was the first sign that the stories for-profit college borrowers told about themselves would prove just as durable.  

An abundance of trauma narratives posed still another challenge. Advancing the cause of debt cancellation for all former Corinthian students, it seemed to me, would require including debtors’ experiences as part of a broader argument that education should be a right and a public good. But on organizing phone calls, new members frequently introduced themselves by offering detailed accounts of what had happened to them at the school. This meant there was less time for the work of planning and executing the strike­–not to mention the fact that such conversations reinforced a kind of victim identity among borrowers that was hard to dislodge.

To address the problem, Hanna and I began to encourage debtors to see their suffering from a different angle. “Higher education has been underfunded for decades, and the economy is rigged against poor people. That is why this is happening to you,” we said. “But we are organizing together to fight back.” Some borrowers, especially those who had known us longer, caught on that we were urging another perspective–one that would better serve their interests in the long run. But other debtors continued to spend time on calls and on online chats repeating details of their personal encounter with financialized higher education.

Concluding that the dynamic would never be resolved, I grew weary of phone calls. While coordinating the recruitment drive, I had noticed that a substantial number of debtors on our contact lists happened to live in Michigan. “A couple of us should make a trip,” I wrote to my colleagues. Laura Hanna and I made plans to travel to the state to meet potential strikers in person.    

*****

A few days later, we touched down in Grand Rapids. I had arranged a meeting at a coffee shop with a group of former Corinthian students and a local attorney. When we arrived, several borrowers were already sitting around a table chatting with each other. The discussion proceeded like a dozen others that we would host in the years to come. Hanna and I listened to borrowers’ personal stories and took notes. Many of the attendees were women who had attended a Nursing program at the local branch of Corinthian. Deep in debt and struggling to find work, most were still hesitant about joining the strike. Mallory Heiney, a cheerful woman in her early 20s, signed on immediately and offered to serve as a local liaison.

After driving on snow-covered country roads for about an hour, Hanna and I arrived in Kalamazoo where I had arranged another meeting. At a diner, we met three women who had attended the same campus but did not know each other. Over salads and lemonade, they shared their stories. Two of them, Diane Smith and Jamie Lindsey, had enrolled in a massage therapy program. Corinthian had promised they could earn wages of up to $25 per hour upon graduation. But neither of them could find anyone in the area who was willing to pay that much for a massage.

The third debtor, Hollie Chafee, was especially timid. After speaking with her by phone earlier in the week, I was surprised she had shown up in person. Chafee had attended Corinthian on the advice of her stepdaughter who had also enrolled. They both wanted to be medical assistants. Before going to college, Hollie had worked at the fast food restaurant, Arby’s. One year after graduation, she was still working there.

Hanna and I told the borrowers about the Debt Collective’s upcoming strike and then announced a plan that we had only recently hatched. “We will be hosting an in-person striker training event in San Francisco,” we said. “Anyone who joins the campaign is invited to attend.” Diane and Jamie, I thought, seemed angry enough to take a chance on two strangers from New York who had rolled into town in the middle of winter to talk about their debt.

After learning that a storm had shut down New York Airports, Hanna and I decided to stay in the state for a few extra days. We drove to Detroit, the home of another Corinthian campus. Obsessed with mass indebtedness, it was easy to see our preoccupation everywhere we looked. But Detroit revealed the crisis from a different angle. Just two years earlier, the city had declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. Decades of de-industrialization had sent once abundant manufacturing jobs to other parts of the country and overseas. As a result, the city’s tax base had dried up, forcing local leaders to turn to Wall Street for loans. Residents were now enduring painful austerity measures, including cuts to public workers’ paychecks and a reduction in the provision of already weak local services–all so the city could pay its debts.

Like the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Detroit’s bankruptcy had revealed how debt and racism were intertwined. Michigan’s elected representatives, including its governor, were mostly white, but Detroit was majority black. The bankruptcy process was essentially white officials taking money from working-class black people to pay off creditors in New York and elsewhere.

Signs of the city’s financial dire state were everywhere. Driving around to meet with former students, we passed block upon block of boarded up homes and businesses. Some neighborhoods looked like they had been abandoned for years. Roofs were falling in, windows were smashed, and doors hung crooked on rusted hinges. A sign on the lawn of one residence made reference to the fire sale property auctions that were taking place: “THIS IS A HOME. DO NOT BID.” Passing dilapidated factories and warehouses where thousands had once worked, I half expected to see ghosts looking down on us from the high, dark windows.    

Though no ghosts made an appearance, Hanna and I met with several former Corinthian students in the area whose lives had been turned upside down by debt. Conversations with them helped to solidify our thinking with regard to what constituted a student debt strike. We learned that most former students had no intention of ever making payments on their loans, even if they were currently enrolled in forbearance or deferment programs. They could not afford to do so. Furthermore, we were reminded that interest still accrued on loans in a stopped payment status. By deferring their debts, then, former students were only digging themselves into a deeper hole.

I summarized our thinking to colleagues in an email. “If students are in deferment, creditors are not getting their money,” I wrote. “The strike can help to politicize the various ways people try to manage a debt they can’t escape.” Herrine agreed. “Our major goal,” he replied, “should be to divert the conversation away from inability to pay in the short term and move it to the broader question of the morality/legality of this debt and whether it should be paid at all.” Appel also liked the idea of allowing anyone who wasn’t making payments for any reason to declare themselves a striker. But she rightly emphasized that expanding the campaign in that way did not decrease our obligation to individuals. “We still need to work on a case by case basis and establish a pretty rigorous process for prepping strikers, vetting their situations, explaining potential consequences,” she wrote. With regard to the thicket of unique cases, our communications strategy was clear. The Debt Collective would foreground individual stories while, at the same time, framing for-profit colleges as a symptom of an economic system that had turned higher education into a commodity. We didn’t know if it would work.   

As I prepared to leave Michigan, I wondered if the Debt Collective’s campaign would be legible. Would the term ‘student debt strike’ make sense? Would it be something lots of people could imagine themselves joining one day? During Occupy, the Pledge of Student Debt Refusal had not caught on, partly because Zuccotti Park had been evicted before our launch and partly because the campaign seemed a little bit crazy. I did not know if the response would be different now that we were collaborating with a group of borrowers from one predatory school. As always, I wanted to keep the bigger picture in view. I wasn’t sure if a strike by former Corinthian students would hinder or help the argument that all student debt should be cancelled and that public higher education should be free. Whatever happened, it would be a surprise. I should have been used to surprises. In the airport waiting for my flight home, my phone buzzed. It was an email from Hollie Chafee in Kalamazoo. “I am joining the debt strike,” she wrote.

Chapter Fourteen