Astra Taylor has championed a series of creative, systems-changing engagement opportunities for debtors nationwide to effectively push back against unfair debts, change policy, and build strong, local, and lasting solutions to the problem of economic inequality.
The New Idea
Astra points out that debt is an essential feature of our economy, just like wages and taxes. All are connected. As she sees it, low wage growth and a dearth of taxpayer-funded public services are major contributors to the fact that Americans have increasingly turned to taking out personal loans to pay for things like education and healthcare. But debt is also an asset. While 75% of Americans are in debt, the financial services industry has grown increasingly wealthy and powerful by buying and selling debt on secondary markets where it is bundled into tradeable assets. “The power imbalance between indebted individuals and creditors has played an essential role in concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. This imbalance is about both money and information.” As Astra says, “debtors are both in the red and in the dark.”
A key strategy, then, is to help people understand their place in this system and stand up to the stigma and shame associated with the forgotten $100 parking ticket that mushrooms into a $4,000 fine, or the outstanding medical bill that has been turned over to a collection agency, or the past-due student loan payments for a degree that was never completed (or from a school that lost its accreditation and closed). Despite the fact that indebtedness is a condition shared by millions and arguably the result of flawed and failing systems, no other organization is helping Americans turn away from isolation, shame, and guilt and toward empowered collective action around debt at scale. Enter the Debt Collective. The organization founded by Astra and a team of co-founders in 2015 is not only tackling mass indebtedness to address the harm in this system, but proving that, as Astra puts it, “indebtedness can lead to new forms of solidarity that unite across age, gender, race, and other divides to form the basis of an untapped and powerful coalition.”
Through online resources, on-the-ground chapters, and national actions, the Debt Collective helps people see themselves as well as our financial system differently, as well as reimagine our legal, healthcare, education, and welfare systems. By piloting the use of rolling jubilees, debt strikes, digital dispute tools, and now the format of a “Debtors Union,” they not only exploit opportunities for change hidden in the current systems but lay the foundation for new ways of operating. With an audience of millions, a subscriber base of 100,000, thousands of active members around the country, and a core organizing team the Debt Collective has already won more than $1.5 Billion in relief, changed federal law and put mass student debt cancellation on the 2020 agenda. In the process debtors are forging new bonds and creating new ways of supporting each other. In this way they are laying the foundation for a new system that honors the debts we should have: to each other, as well as to past and future generations.
Debt, in and of itself, isn’t bad. Astra loves the idea that, “credit expands the possibly of the present.” The notion of “shared debt” is the root of the word solidarity and, as Astra points out, much of the language of banking - from “mutual funds” to “bonds,” “trust,” and “obligations” - is inherently beautiful. The problem is that, in practice, only certain people are extended credit on good terms and afforded opportunities to build wealth. Historically, beneficiaries have included the white middle class in the U.S. which was built in the mid-1900s on access to credit and federally subsidized mortgages that were denied to Black people. But even this group is struggling today. Wages have stagnated over the past 40 years and while Black, Indigenous, and people of color have again been hardest hit, people of all races and income brackets have had to compensate with credit. State and federal budgets for basic needs like education and healthcare are being stripped for private profit, pushing inflated costs onto individuals in the form of indebtedness.
Personal debt-financing as the answer to getting through economic hard times didn’t just emerge out of nowhere. Since the 1980s, economists point out that our economy has become “finanicalized,” by which they mean the financial services sector has grown larger and more influential (relative to the overall economy) and debt-to-equity ratios nationwide have increased. Today some people have wealth, but most have debt, and that’s putting it mildly; Astra notes that, “the top 1% of Americans hold nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90%.” And while individuals shouldering debt experience it as a personal burden, in our financialized economy debt is itself an asset. Whether borrowers realize it or not, people are getting rich off their debts as they are bought and sold. Federally-backed student loans are particularly valuable, but even bail bonds or medical debt are bundled and traded.
Given the profits at stake, the creditors and financial services sector have successfully lobbied for and built a policy and legal regime that maintains this system. Astra points out that, “laws banning usury, which were once incredibly strict, have been repealed. Meanwhile, banks have been deregulated, investment profits laxly taxed, and bankruptcy protections undone. Debtors, unable to provide an adequate counterweight to these measures, have seen their rights eroded as a result.” In this system individuals are atomized and alienated. As individuals’ debts are sold off, they often don’t even know to whom they are indebted. On top of that, America’s deep culture of individualism works against people connecting with others experiencing similar hardship and finding ways to push back, even in legitimate cases where creditors have been caught overstepping they bounds and breaking the law in the way they treat borrowers, enforce contracts, and garnish wages.
Having put herself out there as someone willing to help, Astra describes her inbox as one “of unspeakable tragedy.” And yet, despite the thousands of emails she’s received, she’s never encountered “the irresponsible debtor.” The story that unfolds is first and foremost of the personal burden Americans have taken on in debt-financing education, healthcare, or legal expenses. The catastrophes they describe are brought on by illness, changing life circumstances, or wider economic shifts: Black families lost half of their wealth after the 2008 recession. Most bankruptcies are because of medical debt. The majority of student debt is held by women, who make less on the dollar than men. Tens of millions are paying down debt from private colleges that defrauded them, and in our current economy over a million people per year default on their student loans. And yet, amidst all this despair and feelings of powerlessness, Astra sees a way forward.
Astra believes that, “if something is broken, then that can be an opportunity to suggest ways of re-designing the thing.” Debt, as we know it, is broken. Individually, it isolates us, shames us, and drags us down. Collectively it exacerbates racial and gendered injustices, undermines our democracy and weakens our economy. But Astra’s most important “reframe” in that this very thing that is holding us back is actually a source of power and a form of leverage. The vision of the Debt Collective is to transform the pain and shame associated with indebtedness into activity, solidarity, and strategy.
In order to draw attention to the way this system operates (and who benefits) as well as to provide immediate relief, Astra and a group of friends came up with the idea of “The Rolling Jubilee” in 2012 and – through telethons and direct appeals – raised over $700,000 to buy and cancel debt random individuals’ debts. They then used these funds to buy up portfolios of probation, payday loans, medical debt, and some private tuition debt for pennies on the dollar (as is often the case), immediately forgiving what amounted to over $30M in debt liabilities. Building on this success, in 2014, this same group of friends organized the first ever student debt strike consisting of over 200 former students from the for-profit Corinthian College to demand that these fraudulent debts be discharged. They then found that, by using a little-known law called “borrower defense to repayment,” they could build and share an online app that streamlined the claims process for any individuals disputing debt owed to defunct or fraudulent private colleges. Around the same time, they joined forces with the New Economy Project in a class action lawsuit against predatory debt collectors. In total these efforts have permanently erased more than a billion dollars in debt for tens of thousands of debtors.
Even so, Astra sees these examples as merely creative hacks to the current system, and not in and of themselves systems-changing. So in 2015, Astra and a group of co-founders started Debt Collective as a vehicle for individuals and institutions to affect systemic change. The prominent economist John Maynard Keynes was fond of sharing the old adage, “Owe your banker £1,000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.” It’s this counter-intuitive relationship between creditors and borrowers that Astra and team are building on. When all the individual holders of a particular bundle of debt find each other and come together, whether by threatening to strike or other means, they can assert real power over their creditor in particular and the system’s imbalance of power in general. (Keep in mind that at this point most debt on the secondary market is worth just pennies on the dollar, so there is a lot of room for negotiation without the creditor even losing any money.) At the individual level, the powerful sense of agency and power felt once isolated debt-holders begin working together further encourages diverse groups of debtors to find each other, come together, and demand change.
A central insight is that debtors are a constituency that “messes with the social categories,” coming from all class, race, age, gender, and geographic backgrounds. The Debt Collective’s goal in gathering people together is not to merely offer “financial literary;” their aim is to get people to understand the economy in order to change it. They help their members collectively wield their debts to make demands for lower interest rates, principal reduction, loan cancellation, legal reforms, and the provision of public services. Not only does this put money back in the pockets of poor people but it opens vital new avenues in the fight against inequality and exploitation. And throughout, individuals move beyond stigma and shame by recognizing that many other people are in the same boat and they “are not a loan” (as the Debt Collective slogan goes).
The team working together to orchestrate this consists of Astra and a core group of staff and volunteers around the country, supported by a 501c3 non-profit with an annual budget of around $350,000. They provide layers of engagement for individual members scattered nationwide as well as in collectives based on debt type and/or geography in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts with more forming elsewhere. A team of around five people focuses on writing pamphlets, wikis, and staffing various Slack channels (for online education and engagement). Four more work on app development to automate dispute resolution for various debt types, and a volunteer team of fifteen more form the Disputes Team that helps individuals navigate their own claims processes. There have been a few hundred Debt Strikers engaged in various actions around student debt, thousands use the dispute tools, and over 100k are in communication via email lists and calls to action. Debt clinics have been held in partnership with organizations in Boston, New Orleans, Oakland, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York City, and Dothan, Alabama. And all of this is expanding, extending the reach and growing the community.
Tiffiniy Cheng, Ashoka Fellow and founder of Fight For The Future noted that Astra's model of organizing is new and effective because, “she's both organizing people one person at a time and also organizing people en masse to leverage that collective power to change the system. She's both achieving real, tangible relief for individuals and at the same time achieving real, tangible political change.” This is not by accident. In addition to these thoughtful ways of engaging and supporting debtors around the country, the Debt Collective approach is effective because they engage their full network as well as partners in spotting strategic leverage points for wider, systemic shifts. For example:
It’s often technically possible to dispute or negotiate debt repayments, but practically nearly impossible as doing so requires not only access to a printer and scanner, but often lots of time and technical knowledge. By designing digital dispute tools that help streamline viable and existing pathways to appeal for legal relief of unfair debts, they’ve helped thousands reclaim some power as debtors.
In working with the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard University, Astra’s team realized that most debt collectors lack the proper paperwork required to legally collect debts; their business models are predicated on debtors not knowing their rights. They can now better help inform debtors of instances where refusing to pay illegitimate debts is within their rights and a viable strategy to get their debts renegotiated or forgiven.
The Debt Collective has helped popularize the little-known law ensuring borrowers “Defense to Repayment” that effectively exempts borrowers from obligations of paying fraudulent debts (as in the case of defunct private colleges). It was this opening and the accompanying dispute tools that the Debt Collective built that helped more than 15,000 borrowers file cases with the Department of Education, ultimately winning a total of $250M in debt forgiveness.
And most recently, the Trump administration embraced a legal strategy identified by Debt Collective (and previously endorsed by presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren and several other senators as part of the “College for All Bill”), namely the little-known legal authority called “compromise and settle” that enables the president’s education secretary to unilaterally erase federal student loans. President Trump recently used this authority meagerly, in the form of allowing deferred payments with zero interest as part of the CARES Act, the economic stimulus package as part of his Spring 2020 Covid response. And yes, in so doing, the Trump Administration has validated the Debt Collective’s hypothesis that "compromise and settle” is indeed a viable lever that subsequent administrations can pull, thus catapulting student loan relief into the forefront of the 2020 presidential election.
Going forward, the Debt Collective intends to grow by picking up more members in current collectives (i.e. debt types) and cities, but also by intervening in other areas of indebtedness. For example, California recently proposed legislation that would allow rent debt to be sold and, in so doing, be converted into private debt, without the legal protections around repayment and evictions afforded to rent debt. In response, Debt Collective is building an “Eviction Defense” tool. They also hope to form collectives focused on municipal debt, agricultural debt, criminal justice debt, and more. The readiness of people to step forward and connect around their debt has been surprising to even Astra. “I wrongly thought I was at the vanguard,” she’s shared, adding that she and her team assumed they would have to spend a lot more time getting people up to speed with their analysis and convinced to take action. But farmers want to strike, and so do nurses, student debtors, the formerly incarcerated shouldering probation debt, and others. Another happy learning: some of their most engaged members are those whose financial debts have been forgiven, but who in the process form new bonds and obligations to helping others in their community win relief, too.
In all this the Debt Collective tracks its success in terms of individuals engaged and amount of relief won, but also on changes in policy and narrative. They have systematically made changes to the legal regime and have advanced a mindset shift centered on the lack of public services that lands so many people in debt in the first place. When the Debt Collective first started getting press coverage outlets like NPR described them as “kooks”; just five years later a recent article in the New Yorker flatly stated that, “obviously student debt will be cancelled, the question is ‘how much?’”
For these reasons, Astra’s mid-range plans for “Debtors Unions” all around the U.S. seems highly likely, with thousands more debtors systematically and effectively working to change the systems of predatory debt and debtor powerlessness. But longer term, of course, Astra hopes that communities won’t just be fighting our current extractive financial system, but building a new one where socially productive credit, trust, and public services help restore the social fabric and model “better ways of obtaining what we need.”
Astra grew up unschooled, teaching herself not only how to read and write, but also how to fill her days and chart her course in life. Her parents left her and her siblings to explore their own interests and passions, resisting any urge to control or coerce them, and instead replying completely on her and her siblings curiosity “which they understood to be the most basic human capacity.” Astra’s interests were always in how change is made. She’s reflected that, “when I was a child, between the ages of eleven and twelve, I published a zine about environmental issues—my goal was to organize a youth revolt against the adults destroying the planet” which Astra later in life realized was, “at least partly inspired by the fact my younger sister is physically disabled as a result of military industrial toxic waste that contaminated the local water the supply.” She worked tirelessly on the magazine, printing and selling copies around greater Atlanta for $0.75 an issue, and sending copies to national media outlets. To this day she still hears from young people – like a then 6-year-old contributor - who experienced this project as life changing.
And while it was also life changing for Astra – she learned to write, edit, and build a team, for example – it was ultimately an experience of disappointment and heartbreak. The youth revolt she envisioned never materialized, and adults didn’t change their ways. Questions about how to engage people powerfully, and when sharing what you are passionate about becomes proselytizing stuck with her for years.
After spending some years studying philosophy, writing, and making films, Astra found herself in New York and involved during the early days of the Occupy Wall Street movement. She appreciated how some people were making food, others providing legal aid for those who were arrested, running a laundry service, or coordinating a library. What would her contribution be? Drawing on her earlier experiences and learnings since, Astra decided that she could, yep, start a magazine. The experience of reporting on what was happening on the ground, engaging top writers from across New York, and also commissioning essays from all over the world not only helped seed the Occupy movement in a global way, but forged the relationships and sharpened the analysis from which the Debt Collective emerged.
As someone who will not rest until the new patterns she’s seeing become the norm, and with plans and endless energy to see this vision realized, Astra is a classic social entrepreneur. But she’s also a storyteller, and in balancing these personas Astra notes that she’s committed to Debt Collective fulltime and for life, but she’s also committed to “being multi-media.” While she sees her storytelling projects as necessary to the education, awareness, and culture shift work required for Debt Collective’s overall work to succeed, she cares most about seeing solutions actualized in the world.