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interviews

Cancel It

by Jonathan Elwell
February 22, 2021

This interview with Jonathan Elwell, a participant in The Debt Collective's 100-day debt strike, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Jonathan | My name's Jonathan. I grew up in South Florida and now live in Brattleboro, Vermont. I work for a restorative justice organization that helps people address harm and conflict and assist folks as they transition back into the community after being incarcerated. I'm on strike with the Debt Collective. 

When I was looking at colleges, I had a pretty open mind. I basically just thought I would go to as good of a school as I can and figure out some niche that works for me. I ended up going to a four-year private college in Minnesota. I graduated in 2019, with $22,000 of debt. My parents have about the same amount in loans taken out in their name. In total it is about $45,000 of debt.

I had followed the Debt Collective's work for a few years. Early on in my college experience, I got really concerned about and interested in climate change. The more I learned about climate change, the more I realized what was inhibiting effective action came down to our economic systems and to capitalism and to colonialism. In thinking about economic systems and how we can change them, I thought that the Debt Collective had a really compelling analysis of why we are in these relationships.

When I heard about the strike, I was very supportive, but I wasn't quite sure if there was a place for me in it. I felt like I had chosen to go to a private four-year university. I knew that there were cheaper options. But, after a couple of conversations with folks, I realized that there's something really important about my participation in the strike because we have reached a moment where student debt strikes are no longer focused only on predatory for-profit colleges.

This strike is about the entire system.

The only way that tuition at a private college can balloon to the extent that it has is the same reason that predatory for-profit colleges can even exist — the defunding of public education. I think there is something really important about this strike about the whole system. 

frank | The focus of their first strike was targeted specifically towards for-profit colleges, correct?

Yeah, the first strike was focused on the Corinthian college system, a for-profit college system.

So what does this 100-day strike look like and what are its goals?

Ultimately, as 100 people, we are not possessing material leverage that's going to compel the federal government. But, we believe that we can use our stories and bring attention to this cause in a way that makes the argument and the necessity of this action really clear. We can put pressure on legislators to be vocal about this, and to put pressure on Biden, ourselves. We can get people talking about and thinking about student debt, and debt in general, in a really different way.

How should we be thinking about debt?

Debt comes down to power. It is a reflection of power relations. And right now the power relations are dramatically skewed for corporations and against people.

This is a moment where yes, we want to accomplish one clear policy goal, but it also is about promoting a different way of thinking that we think is really crucial for this movement and for economic justice movements going forward.

What does the organizing look like?

The organizing looks really different than it would if we were not in a pandemic, which is true of anything these days. Of course, it is a lot of social media, but we are also trying to do some direct actions. I actually just had a conversation earlier today with staffers of my representative in Congress talking about what we're doing and how we could potentially collaborate and what we might ask from legislators. We are planning things like banner drops, dropping legislative materials at people's offices, and thinking of creative ways to connect with people.

Have you seen any movement from legislators from this campaign?

I don't know if folks like Chuck Schumer really had student debt on their radar at all before the pandemic. Now, he is calling for $50,000 of cancellation. Again, that's not what the Debt Collective is calling for — we want complete cancellation — but it's a huge step. To have moved the needle that drastically is really important. You can look all the way back to Occupy when people were first starting to float the idea of student debt cancellation, and people basically just got laughed away. The center has definitely moved on on this issue, which is really exciting and we hope to move it even further. 

It is more clear now than ever that the federal government has the money to fund programs. The money is there, it is about the political power to make them fund the programs we want. For too long, that's been corporations, that's been Wall Street. This is a moment where we are trying to shift the power. 

How do you understand this movement in the broader history of anti-poverty movements? 

Thinking broadly about carrying on the legacy of previous anti-poverty movements, I think what's really clear here is that there is no single issue that you can focus on as part of an anti-poverty movement. Poverty is systemic. It is clear that the way to deal with this exploitation is collective power, collective power we haven't had in this country as workers.

The working class has faced a systemic assault, going all the way back to 1947 and the gutting of our labor laws.

It is clear that traditional unions in the workplace are still crucial, but workplaces and people are so divided, and we have so many different identities and pieces of ourselves, that it's hard to pull that into a more conventional labor movement.

Building a model of a union where people work together and strike collectively, if need be, to stop the craziness can be really effective. I mean, look what some people on a subreddit can do. Imagine what a mass debt strike could do. Game Stop craziness. Of course, right now we are just a few students, but think about what striking on mortgage payments could look like. The power is there. The potential is huge.

Looking at the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, the specific demands were higher wages and better housing. Maybe there is no silver bullet for poverty, but, wages and housing are a good, broad-based start, and some of the pushback for college debt cancellation is that it is focusing on an elite subsect of people. 

Yeah, I definitely hear that and I think there are a couple of different responses. One, this has economic benefits for everyone. This means that there is more money staying in communities, being used beyond servicing debt. The impacts are immediate and widespread.

The other part is that a large majority of student debt is held by people who did not graduate college. In Vermont, 50% of borrowers who still hold debt over the age of 26, have less than a bachelor's degree. Either just community college or no degree at all. And often those are the people who are hit the hardest by economic collapse. I think that's an important point.

But, I also think that that is why it is so crucial to make it clear that this is an abolitionist movement. This is not about debt forgiveness or debt relief, which plays into the tropes of, "Oh, you poor debtor. You've made a mistake. You've been irresponsible." No. This is about abolition. This is about not just canceling the debt, but abolishing the systems and the conditions that force us into debt in the first place, and that profit off that debt.

By abolishing people's debt, we open up so much more space. For me personally, I would have so much more time and energy to commit to my community, to the causes that matter to me, to building a more just world. I think there's so much transformative potential when we see debt as a mechanism of social control and that by canceling this debt, we free people from that and free people to pursue whatever is important to them.

And for a lot of people, I actually think that is collective liberation, but our priorities become so clouded and self-interested because we just have to get by. 

Something we talked about a lot in our month focused on debt was the element of shame, and how that's so controlling. Anti-poverty movements feel like the antithesis of that. It is literally people coming together saying, I am poor, I am struggling, listen to my demands. 

In this age of exacerbated finance capitalism to retake power is so humanizing because other struggles people see are very public and external and people don't see other people struggling with debt, even though a million people default on their student loans every year. There are 45 million student debtors in this country. All of those people are struggling with it. To make these struggles public is so humanizing. 

People truly believe that their irresponsibility or lack of effort is the cause of their problems. They internalize it and don’t talk about it. But when they understand these problems to be products of a racist, patriarchal, misogynist system, that shame goes away and it becomes possible to reassert what we deserve as people. 

You can reassert your right to public education. You can reassert your right to medical care that is safe and accessible and free. You can reassert your right to food, to housing.

And I think that is what is potentially really transformative about what the Debt Collective is doing. By pushing back on the conventional wisdom of how we understand these things we can get so much more. We are in debt because of policy failures that require collective action and structural solutions. That’s why we strike.