Right before Covid-19 disrupted our lives, I assembled a group of activists and academics to discuss the crisis of higher education and what was next for the growing movement to cancel student debt and make college and university tuition free. The 45-minute film “You Are Not a Loan” is a record of this encounter, which took place on February 7, 2020.
After nearly a decade of grassroots organizing, the Debt Collective, a union for debtors that I helped found, succeeded in making student debt a central issue in the Democratic presidential primary. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren campaigned aggressively on canceling various amounts of student debt while expressing varying commitments to higher education as a right.
Our movement had entered a pivotal moment that seemed worth documenting. We needed to figure out how to advance and expand our agenda. Of course, we had no idea what was just around the corner. In many ways, “You Are Not a Loan” is more resonant now than when we shot it. The pandemic dealt this country’s fragile higher education system a potentially existential blow, making the issues and solutions raised in the film more urgent and mainstream. Meanwhile, the call to cancel debts — student loans and also medical debt, past-due mortgages, and back rent — can now be heard emanating from struggling communities and echoed by progressive representatives in Congress. Even President Joe Biden has embraced the necessity of student debt cancellation. Though his proposal is inadequate — he has promised $10,000 of “immediate” relief along with more substantial cancellation for students who attended certain schools and meet certain income thresholds — it is a notable development for a former senator of Delaware, the credit card capital of the world, and a man who played a key role in pushing legislation that rolled back bankruptcy protections for student borrowers.
The pandemic dealt this country’s fragile higher education system a potentially existential blow, making the issues and solutions raised in the film more urgent and mainstream.
The idea for this project emerged out of conversations with Paul Holdengräber and his team at Onassis Los Angeles, a newly opened 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 scholars, including political theorist Wendy Brown, historian Barbara Ransby, economist Stephanie Kelton, and others. The dialogue that ensued is personal and philosophical, historically grounded and engagingly hypothetical. The film offers an intimate view of the ongoing 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 speak and strategize across cultural and class divides.
As a documentary filmmaker, I’ve long been a fan of political cinema from the 1960s, especially fly-on-the-wall accounts of impassioned meetings and intimate conversations where people share grievances and plan next steps. I share this sensibility with my main collaborator on this project, the multitalented Erick Stoll, who shot and edited the project. We wanted to give viewers a sense of being immersed in an activist milieu while showing the ways that these milieus naturally create space to ask big questions, blurring the supposed divide between theory and practice. As the brilliant historian Robin D. G. Kelley once wrote: “Social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions. The most radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression.” That has certainly been my experience collaborating with the Debt Collective.
With the Debt Collective’s core demands of student debt cancellation and free college being discussed on the national stage, my aim was to prompt the group to step back and reflect on the big picture to help us figure out how to keep moving forward. How did we get to this point? What would truly free college — meaning free as in cost and free as in aimed at liberation — be like? How have racism and capitalism sabotaged public education as we know it? What do we mean by the word “public”? Where is our power to change things?
Little did we know how much things were about to change for the worse. Within a matter of weeks, college campuses across the country would shut down, and tens of millions of jobs would disappear, causing students to question the value of Zoom learning and pushing countless people deeper into debt. An already dire situation suddenly became much worse. In the wake of the pandemic, additional budget shortfalls are already leading to hiring freezes, faculty layoffs, tuition hikes, and mounting student debt.
“You Are Not a Loan” puts current events and the deepening crisis of higher education into a broader context. It explores past decisions that set us on our current path while pointing toward a utopian horizon we can still reach for — a horizon where education is decommodified and democratized, available to all who want to learn. Most importantly, it offers a reminder that we will only shift course if regular people organize and fight back.
The Debt Collective proposes one approach that we hope will assist such an endeavor. We believe that engaging debtors in campaigns of strategic economic disobedience (a concept I discussed at length with Jeremy Scahill on the Intercepted podcast) can yield novel tactics to tackle inequality and strengthen other established social movement strategies. Just like workers need labor unions to secure higher wages and benefits, borrowers need debtors’ unions that can engage in collective campaigns to secure debt write-downs and cancellation and the provision of social services, such as free college and universal health care, to ensure that no one is forced to take on debt to survive. The dominant idea that debts have to be repaid is a bedrock principle of modern financial capitalism — as long as those debts are held by regular people and not bankers, big corporations, or Donald Trump, of course. By insisting otherwise, we pose a profound challenge to the economic status quo.
Putting our principles in action, the Debt Collective launched the first student debt strike in this country’s history in 2015, ultimately helping tens of thousands of borrowers defrauded by predatory for-profit colleges secure over $1 billion in student debt discharges and winning changes to federal law. 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 declared themselves on strike. The Biden Jubilee 100, as they call themselves, demand that all $1.7 trillion of student debt be canceled within the Biden administration’s first 100 days. They come from all over the country and represent all walks of life. They are educators, doctors, graphic designers, gig workers, and even a pastor. What they have in common is that they can’t — and won’t — pay their student loans.
Biden has the power to cancel all federal student debt with a signature. Congress long ago granted the executive branch the authority to do so. A movement is building to make him act. This film reveals how we got to the point and, hopefully, helps illuminate the possibilities that still lie ahead.
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