Just before Covid-19 disrupted our lives, I brought together a group of activists and academics to discuss the crisis in higher education and the aftermath of the growing movement to cancel student debt and return college tuition fees and free universities. The 45-minute film “You Are Not a Loan” is an account of this meeting, which took place on February 7, 2020.
After nearly a decade of grassroots organizing, the Debt Collective, a debtors union that I helped found, succeeded in making student debt a central issue in the Democratic presidential primary. Senses Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have led an aggressive campaign to write off various amounts of student debt while expressing various commitments to higher education as a right.
Our movement had entered a pivotal moment which seemed to deserve to be documented. We had to figure out how to move forward and expand our agenda. Of course, we had no idea what was going on around the corner. In many ways, “You’re Not a Loan” sounds more resonant now than when we shot it. The pandemic has dealt a potentially existential blow to this country’s fragile higher education system, making the issues and solutions raised in the film more urgent and common. Meanwhile, the call to write off debts – student loans and also medical debts, delinquent mortgages and rent arrears – can now be heard emanating from struggling communities and echoed by progressive representatives across the country. Congress. Even President Joe Biden has recognized the need for student debt cancellation. While his proposal is inadequate – he has promised $ 10,000 in “immediate” relief as well as more substantial cancellation for students who have attended certain schools and who reach certain income thresholds – it is a notable development for one. former senator from Delaware, the credit card capital of the world, and a man who played a key role in promoting legislation that struck down bankruptcy protections for student borrowers.
The pandemic has dealt a potentially existential blow to this country’s fragile higher education system, making the issues and solutions raised in the film more urgent and common.
The idea for this project arose out of conversations with Paul Holdengräber and his team at Onassis Los Angeles, a new center for dialogue around social change and justice. With their support, I was able to convene a group that included Debt Collective organizers, student debtors and esteemed academics, including political theorist Wendy Brown, historian Barbara Ransby, economist Stephanie Kelton and others. . The ensuing dialogue is personal and philosophical, historically grounded and engaging hypothetical. The film offers an intimate view of the continuing and growing grassroots struggle to transform our broken, profit-driven education system and also reveals some of the challenges facing the effort. There are insightful and humorous moments as participants attempt to talk and strategize across cultural and class divisions.
As a documentary maker, I have long been a fan of 1960s political cinema, especially the eye-catching tales of heated meetings and intimate conversations where people share their grievances and plan next steps. I share this sensitivity with my main collaborator on this project, the versatile Erick Stoll, who shot and edited the project. We wanted to give the viewer the feeling of being immersed in an activist milieu while showing how these milieus naturally create a space to ask big questions, blurring the alleged gap between theory and practice. As the brilliant historian Robin DG Kelley once wrote: “Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often arise from concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of injured populations facing oppressive systems. This has certainly been my experience working with the Debt Collective.
As the Debt Collective’s fundamental demands for student debt cancellation and free college tuition were being discussed nationally, my goal was to get the group to step back and think about big picture to help us understand how to keep moving forward. How did we get there? What would a truly free university look like – that is, free as a cost and free as aimed at liberation? How did racism and capitalism sabotage public education as we know it? What is meant by the word “public”? Where is our power to make a difference?
We didn’t know how much would change for the worse. In a matter of weeks, college campuses across the country would close and tens of millions of jobs would disappear, causing students to question the value of Zoom learning and pushing countless people into debt. more. An already dire situation suddenly worsened. In the wake of the pandemic, further budget shortfalls are already leading to hiring freezes, faculty layoffs, tuition fee hikes and growing student debt.
“You are not a loan” places the current and worsening higher education crisis in a larger context. It explores past decisions that put us on our current path while pointing to a utopian horizon that we can still reach – a horizon where education is demodified and democratized, accessible to all who want to learn. More importantly, it is a reminder that we will only change course if ordinary people organize and fight back.
The Debt Collective proposes an approach which we hope will contribute to such an endeavor. We believe that engaging debtors in strategic economic disobedience campaigns (a concept that I discussed at length with Jeremy Scahill on the Intercepted podcast) may give rise to new tactics to tackle inequality and strengthen other established social movement strategies. Just as workers need unions to secure higher wages and benefits, borrowers need debtor unions who can engage in collective campaigns to ensure debt reduction and cancellation and provision. social services, such as free colleges and universal health care, to ensure that no one is forced into debt to survive. The prevailing idea that debts must be repaid is a fundamental tenet of modern financial capitalism – as long as those debts are held by ordinary people and not by bankers, big corporations or Donald Trump, of course. By insisting on the contrary, we are deeply questioning the economic status quo.
Putting our principles into action, the Debt Collective launched the country’s first student debt strike in 2015, ultimately helping tens of thousands of borrowers defrauded by for-profit predatory colleges get more money. $ 1 billion in student debt repayments and federal law changes. . Some of the original debt strikers appear in “You Are Not a Loan”. Their ranks have since grown. On January 20, the day of Biden’s inauguration, 100 student debtors went on strike. The Biden Jubilee 100, as they call themselves, are demanding that the entire $ 1.7 trillion in student debt be canceled within the first 100 days of the Biden administration. They come from all over the country and represent all walks of life. They are educators, doctors, graphic designers, construction workers and even a pastor. What they have in common is that they cannot – and will not – pay off their student loans.
Biden has the power to write off any federal student debt with a signature. Congress long ago granted the executive the power to do so. A movement is built to make him act. This film reveals how we got there and, hopefully, helps to illuminate the possibilities that still lie ahead.