The Debt Collective platform launch announcement came in my inbox just a few months ago, but the collective has been around longer than that. How would you describe Debt Collective before it became a platform?
During Occupy Wall Street, there was a small group of us who started working together. We started thinking about debt, and talking about debt as a site for organizing. We realized that everybody was in debt: we were in debt, everyone we knew was in debt. We realized that indebtedness was a material condition that defined our era.
After Occupy, a bunch of us formed a group called Strike Debt. We were studying what the debt system was, how it was operating, who the creditors were. We wrote The Debt Resistor’s Operations Manual, which is still available on strikedebt.org. Later, we started a project called Rolling Jubilee, which bought defaulted debt for pennies on the dollar and then canceled it. This was a series of projects over several years that came from trying to figure out: what should organizing around debt look like?
Through working on Rolling Jubilee, we came to the conclusion that we needed to build power from the bottom up. We needed a membership organization, something millions of debtors could join. That’s the idea behind the Debt Collective platform.
Labor organizing is a model that inspires us. Getting together with your fellow workers to go to the boss and say, “We want more money, we want time off, we want healthcare” — this is a model that works. Today, more than sharing the same employer, people share the same creditor. Everybody’s got Sallie Mae, everybody’s got Navient, everybody owes the same credit card companies. What can we do together if we join forces and bring some of those labor organizing tactics into the space of finance?
That framing — that we might not all share the same employer, but a lot of us share the same creditor — is so striking.
Creditors have so much power over us. They have all this data about us that they’re constantly buying and selling. But we don’t know very much about them, or about each other and our shared situation.
During the housing crisis of 2008, millions and millions of people were foreclosed upon illegally, including disproportionate numbers of African Americans. Our lesson from that is that debtors must be organized. What if all of those folks had been in debtor’s unions and could have pushed back against what was being done to them? That really motivates us. Because what happened then will happen again — in the same way or in a different form — and we should be ready.
It seems like that vision informed the whole idea of the Debt Collective platform. Can you tell me about building it? What inspired the technical and the design decisions that you made?
In 2015, as a pilot project, we launched a student debt strike with a group of fifteen borrowers who had attended a scam college called Corinthian that’s now bankrupt. Corinthian was a chain of for-profit schools with campuses across the country. They preyed on low-income people and had developed some pretty evil tactics to target low-income folks, racial minorities, and women.
Our campaign had two components. The first was a student debt strike, where former students refused to pay their loans. The other was a complementary legal campaign, where we activated a provision of the Higher Education Act of 1965 called “borrower defense to repayment,” often shortened to “defense to repayment.” The law says that if your school scams you or lies to you in the process of issuing you federal student loans, you have the right to have those loans canceled.
Since 2015, we’ve won over one billion dollars in debt relief from that work. When we started, we didn’t know that’s how it would go. We were a small group of volunteers who had a website and some very basic infrastructure. And we got flooded — flooded — with people who had student debt of all kinds. We couldn’t keep up.
Our takeaway was that we needed to have solid infrastructure, online and in-person, that would enable us to accommodate everyone who wants to participate the next time we campaign. The last three years have been spent trying to figure out what that infrastructure looks like. That’s what led to creating the Debt Collective platform.
When I go to the platform, I see that the first two links in the navigation menu at the top of the page are “Dispute Your Debt” and “Community.” “Dispute Your Debt” takes you to a landing page for six debt dispute tools and “Community” takes you to a forum. How did you decide on those features?
The debt dispute tools are important because they help people stop predatory creditors and collectors in the short term. People are struggling with their debt today, right now, and they can’t necessarily wait for the student debt jubilee that we must organize together to win.
At the same time, one of the aspects of indebtedness is a feeling of isolation and shame. People don’t talk about their finances even with their friends and family, so lots of people think they’re the only person this has happened to.
We hear stories from debtors who tell you, “I didn’t expect to lose my job and then my car broke down and I had to take out all this debt.” They may think that if this one bad thing hadn’t happened to them, they wouldn’t be in this situation. But once you start talking to other people, you realize that everybody is in the same boat. The forum is about enabling debtors to make connections with each other. Eventually, the platform will also enable people to work together to develop a campaign for our collective benefit. As more and more people, especially the young, are beginning to talk about socialism and how we have to transition our economy to save the planet, we believe that the time is right to think about how debtors can contribute to efforts that make bold, visionary demands such as student loan cancellation, free health care, and more.
I’d never heard of “a debt dispute tool” before I visited the platform. Tell us more about that.
The best way to explain it is to tell you about the first tool we ever made. For our campaign in 2015 with borrowers who had attended Corinthian, we worked with lawyers to develop an app like TurboTax to file for defense to repayment.
TurboTax is easy. A little wizard comes up and asks you questions, you answer them, and, at the end, it tells you what you owe. We thought, “What if we made something similar?” So we developed an app that submits a letter to the Department of Education that says, “You lied to me and here’s the evidence. I want my loans canceled.”
Based on the success of that tool, we decided to replicate that model with other types of debt on the new platform. So now we have six tools. But what’s funny is that when you click on the “Defense to Repayment” link from the tools landing page, it just takes you to the Department of Education website because they’ve taken over the process. We started it and they sort of… stole it.
Yeah. A hundred thousand people filed for defense to repayment in the year after we launched our tool. The Department of Education couldn’t allow us to do that. Who were we to submit these letters en masse? So they created their own web app, which looks suspiciously like ours. Now borrowers have to go to the official Department of Education website to file. But the process of applying didn’t exist before we invented it.
They co-opt your work, they don’t pay you, and they don’t credit you in any way. It just blends into some federal website.
The federal bureaucracy takes it over.
There are so many cases like that in the history of labor organizing as well. Victories that are hard won just get sucked into existing systems and made to appear as if they were always there.
It erases the struggle that led to the change. And, like I said, about a billion dollars in debt have been erased now due to the operationalization of that law. The law had existed, but people weren’t using it. A billion dollars is a drop in the bucket, but nevertheless a good sign that organizing in this way can be effective.
You mentioned that a campaigning feature is coming to the platform. How do you envision campaigns coming together?
The intention is to organize democratically, so people on the platform determine the campaigns. What if Debt Collective members in some city found each other on our platform and decided to do something together locally? Maybe there’s a payday lending store you want to shut down, so you work with your neighbors and have the support of our organizers and our resources. Maybe there’s a predatory for-profit college, a hospital that’s gouging people, courts and police who are sticking people with fines and fees. The bonds of solidarity can be created at the local as well as at the national level.
How has this kind of organization not existed before? Do you know of precedents in other other places or times?
There are some examples in other countries. In Spain, when the mortgage crisis hit in 2012, people organized to stop foreclosures. There have been examples in Latin America where people go to the bank as a collective and say, “You’re not going to foreclose on these homes.”
But not us. Seventy-five percent of Americans are in debt. It’s really almost everyone. It’s astonishing that organizations for debtors don’t exist yet, even though we’re all in this situation. That must change. We really have to catch up.
Our theory of change is that massive social transformation does not happen without insurgency from the bottom up. But insurgencies require infrastructure to sustain them. The Debt Collective platform is our attempt to begin building that.