Fighting Unjust Debt

Photo by Patricia Chang

Debbie says:

Alex Shultz at SFGate (the online arm of the San Francisco Chronicle) interviewed me and my partner-in-activism JP Massar on our work with Strike Debt Bay Area, where we concentrate on the debt burdens of the ordinary American, their systemic roots, and what can be done about them.

Strike Debt’s efforts have historically targeted erasing medical debt. Rolling jubilee fundraisers “buy up” medical debt for pennies on the dollar, then forgive it for locals drowning in bills. “I just thought that was the cat’s pajamas,” Massar says of the rolling jubilees. “No one should have medical debt. It doesn’t make any sense in a modern society. And the same is essentially true for educational debt. The whole thing is crazy and I decided that it was a worthwhile fight.”

Of late, the dominant discourse about debt has shifted to student loans. It’s not a new issue, but it’s taken on a life of its own. Notkin attributes this to a steady increase in tuition and compounding interest rates, and notes that student loans have attracted more attention thanks to national politicians and the “inflexible, arrogant” Department of Education under President Donald Trump, which was “opposed to any reduction of any kind or any forgiveness in student debt.”

Also featured in the article is new ally Tiffany Konyen, who hosts (virtual) Bay Area Debtors’ Union meetings every Wednesday evening.

Konyen is a student at the California Institute of Integral Studies in the anthropology and social change department, where she’s researching debt and indebtedness. She separately helps oversee the Bay Area Debt Collective chapter. She believes half-measures aren’t going to fly for large swaths of the population that have grown accustomed to finally saving money during the pandemic due to the moratoriums.

“People have started using that money in other ways,” she says, “so what’s going to happen to them? Is there going to be a whole other wave of foreclosures?”

Strike Debt’s slogan is “You Are Not a Loan” (say it out loud to get the double meaning). Here’s me, making what I think is the key point.

For years and years, the pervasive sentiment among debtors, no matter their situation, has been shame, Notkin says. “There’s a very enduring American belief that if you’re in debt, it’s your fault, rather than having a conversation about the systemic nature of debt.” Groups like the Debt Collective want to change that notion and go on the offensive via protests.

It feels great to have our work noticed.

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