On January 20th, as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn into office, The Debt Collective, an organization fighting against debt as a system of oppression, launched a national student loan debt strike. The demand is simple. All $1.5 trillion of student debt held by the federal government must be canceled by executive order within 100 days.
The strike has been dubbed the “Biden Jubilee 100.”
In 2015, The Debt Collective led their first student debt strike against Corinthian College, which has now won over a billion dollars in debt abolition and helped propel debt cancellation into the national conversation.
Today, 45 million people in the U.S. are in $1.7 trillion of student loan debt (of which the U.S. Government owns the vast majority). It is also fully within Biden’s privileges as president to cancel all of this debt with a single signature.
Mr. President, before getting elected, you vowed to cancel $10,000 for each person in student loan debt with the federal government by executive order. I am writing to tell you, that is not good enough – I owe more than $250,000 for my degrees.
In isolation, incurring large amounts of debt, specifically for the purpose of attending college and qualifying for gainful employment, is often accepted as a personal issue. However, as we share our debtor stories we realize these issues are deeply systemic and intentionally predatory especially for low-income and poorer communities.
In 2005, when I graduated high school, I didn’t have anyone to advise me about the college application process or student loans. I didn’t know where to begin. No one in my family had graduated from college, so it was a space that I had to learn to navigate on my own.
Although I didn’t know exactly what to do, I knew that in order to make a livable wage in this country college was deemed necessary. It had been reinforced my entire life and I never gave it a second thought. Shortly after high school, I got pregnant and married. Within just a couple of years, I was separated and suddenly a single momma of two, experiencing housing insecurity. I worked part-time, which was simply not enough income to provide for two children, especially living in Los Angeles.
I knew a degree would help my financial situation, at least that is what I had been told. So, I completed my FAFSA, the “free” application for federal financial aid and I was approved instantly despite my lack of credit history. My financial aid package, like many, included borrowed funds, as grants and scholarships weren’t enough to cover all of the expenses.
My entire life was school and my children, I had to finish as fast as I could. The next two years were hell, but somehow, someway I was able to I graduate with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a teaching credential in just 24 months. Yes, you read that correctly — 24 months.
Within those two years, however, I incurred $100,000 of student loan debt. I was able to find rewarding work as a teacher, but a teacher’s wage in Los Angeles (and across the country) is not enough to pay off that much debt. We struggled to survive, and I had to go in to even more debt just to keep the bills paid and a roof over our heads.
After much deliberation, I returned to school in hopes that I would land a better paying position with another degree. That is the “American Dream” after all. In 2018, I graduated with a Doctorate in Education. My total student loan debt: $200,000.
It was then that I was finally able to secure a well-paying position but I still couldn’t keep up with the accumulating interest on my debt, which as of publication is over $250,000. Despite having a fulfilling career this debt has become a life sentence.
As interest continues to build, I have come to the conclusion that paying off this obscene debt is no longer an option. I am a 33-year-old mother of two with a doctorate, sharing a room in my mom’s house, and I don’t see a way out if I am forced to hand over a large percentage of my salary to pay off my student loan debt. This is my reality and the reality of many other Black Womxn and single mothers. In fact, Womxn hold two-thirds of the student loan debt in the United States and Black Womxn carry the highest student loan debt of any racial or ethnic group.
This reality frightens me.
I fear that I’ll never own a home, nor will I be able to dig myself out of this hole. I fear that my children will be burdened with the same fate. I fear that student loan debt will not just be a life sentence for me, but a curse for generations to come. My family didn’t have the wealth to send me to college so I went in to this debt, seeking a better life. Yet, even with my doctorate and a great job, I can’t build wealth while facing this mountain of student debt. And that means when my kids are ready to go to college, they will face this debt, too.
This fear inside, albeit valid, exists simultaneously with hope. I am hopeful that through sharing our stories and our struggles, these issues will be named and recognized for being systemic and pervasively anti-black, and more specifically anti-black Womxn.
Naming and recognizing these struggles as a result of failed policies on a systemic level, will allow for appropriate restitution in addressing them. These loans are predatory and they are violent. A fundamental flaw in the system allowed for this to happen, and therefore must be addressed fundamentally. College must once again be free, and student loan debt must be fully cancelled.
I am declaring my inability to pay off my student loans and I am striking. I will no longer concede my livelihood to pay off a debt for an education that we should have all received for free. The more of us that come together, the more our debt will become a weapon against those who have the power to release us from our collective burden. One person trying to negotiate with the government, who holds $1.5 trillion of the debt in question, is nearly impossible. But if just a fraction of the 45 million people who hold student loan debt in the U.S. come together and withhold their payments, they will have to listen. You can join or support the strike here.
We were sold this idea that if we go to college, if we work hard, and put our best foot forward, it will pay off. “Sign here, you’ll get a great job with this degree, and you’ll be out of debt in no time.” We did exactly what we were supposed to do. They lied to us, there was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and now we are organizing to right their wrongs.
Richelle BrooksDr. Richelle Brooks is a member of The Debt Collective and a Biden Jubilee 100 striker. Brooks is the founder of ReTHINK It, an organization dedicated to addressing anti-blackness through education and mutual aid. She is also a full-time educator and a single momma of two. As a first-generation college graduate and a formerly houseless person, she has learned to navigate the oppressive and racist systems and institutions, and has made it her life-work to help others do the same, while simultaneously working to dismantle these systems that perpetuate those inequities.