Leverage is an account of nearly a decade of activism. From 2011 to 2020, I was deeply involved in various organizing campaigns to pressure the federal government to cancel student debt and make public college free. Once a radical demand, starting in 2019, large majorities across the US, along with some top elected officials, began to support the idea that no one should have to go into debt for education. This book is my account of some of the organizing that contributed to that transformation in public and elite opinion.
I composed these pages as a first-person narrative. I wanted to tell the story of those campaigns as I lived them, to show what I was thinking and learning at the time that the events I describe occurred. While this book was only possible with the benefit of hindsight, I tried to resist projecting into the future. (Indeed, Leverage ends before the presidential election of 2020–an extremely consequential event given my topic.) In that sense, these pages attempt to frame a moment in time, one made of up disparate elements that occurred together–or at least that was how I perceived them–in the life of one person.
To tell the history of an ongoing political struggle, I used a method employed by the French feminist, Simone de Beauvoir. Perhaps best known for The Second Sex, de Beauvoir also wrote a series of autobiographies, starting in the 1950s, which document her life including her various political engagements from resistance to the Nazi occupation of France to speaking out in favor of Algerian independence during that nation’s struggle for freedom from its colonial rulers.
In these texts, de Beauvoir describes what happened and what she thinks of the events unfolding around her. A committed leftist whose politics informed every aspect of her work, she writes from the conviction that that individuals can shape the societies in which they live in profound ways and that intellectuals in particular must fight on behalf of others to be worthy of that descriptor.
At the same time de Beauvoir is clear that, even as each of us has a sense that we are unique subjects, we are also vulnerable to forces beyond our control and, in that sense, we are nothing. Time makes spectators–and specters–of us all. Her solution to the contradiction of human existence was to write into that coming void.
After decades documenting her life, her relationships, and her attempts to intervene in a world of cruelty and horror, her sense of self had been both augmented and diminished. “I discovered in the world,” de Beauvoir wrote in Force of Circumstance, “an amount of misery too immense for me to disturb myself unduly over the place I hold in it.” After a decade of personal and political struggle, that is a conclusion that I have come to share. The only thing left to do was write it down. To write, after all, is to recognize that failure is likely, probably inevitable. In that way, it has much in common with activism. – Ann Larson, November 2020
*In this book, some names have been changed and a few minor details altered to protect people’s identities and for other reasons.
Contact: annlarsonsohn at gmail.com