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Astra Taylor is a writer, documentary filmmaker and debt abolitionist who speaks and teaches about the power that debtors can wield. Taylor shares her Brief But Spectacular take on student loans and rethinking what it means to be in debt.
This week, the Supreme Court announced it will hear a case that will decide whether the Biden administration can broadly cancel student loans. Tonight, we hear from one of the millions of Americans affected by student debt.
Astra Taylor is a writer, filmmaker and political organizer. As a young adult, she says she was forced to default on her student loans, prompting her to join the Occupy Wall Street Movement back in 2011. Since then, she has been speaking and teaching about debt. Taylor shares her Brief But Spectacular take.
Astra Taylor, Filmmaker:
It's a couple years after the 2008 financial crisis. And I was struggling to pay my student loans. And I defaulted. I couldn't pay. And I remember getting this phone call and the person on the other end saying you've defaulted on your loans. And so that means your principal is going to go up by 19%. So, my balance ballooned. And, you know, your credit score is shot. And so now I just owe even more like the problem is just even worse than it was. At that moment, I felt really alone and overwhelmed by my situation.
So, I grew up in Athens, Georgia, you know, I was told basically, you know, you need to get into as fancy as school as you can, or you're not going to have opportunity in life. And so, at 17 I enrolled at Brown University. And yeah, 17, you know, I had to pay for it. I vividly remember being in the, you know, in a big auditorium with felt like dozens or hundreds of other teenagers, signing the loan papers, taking out loans to go to school. When I defaulted on my student loans, I felt overwhelmed. I felt ashamed. And what I didn't realize at the time was just how common my situation was. I mean, now I know now, I know that two-thirds of Americans are in debt. I know that 45 million people have student loans. I know that a million student debtors default every year. I know that 50% of Americans struggle with medical bills. I didn't know that then.
But I started to realize it one day when I went to Occupy Wall Street, and I actually realized everyone here is in debt. And that was a really powerful moment. Individually being in debt can be really overwhelming. But when you come together with other debtors, those debts can actually make you powerful. There's a saying that we like to quote from this industrialist, if you owe the bank $100. That's your problem. But if you owe the bank 100 million, that's the bank's problem. Together, we own the proverbial bank, right? That's the kind of power that debtors can wield when they realize that their debts are someone else's assets.
The debt collective is the country's first debtors union. A debtors union is a form of organization that people can join, to wield power collectively, just like workers come together in the workplace to demand higher wages and benefits, better treatment. Our idea is that debtors also need to come together. Many of the debts that we now hold today didn't exist a few generations ago. Again, a few generations ago, college was free or close to it, medical costs were not so exorbitant. So, debt is a systemic problem, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. We're taught to think that debt is our fault. But the fact is, you're not in debt because you live beyond your means. You're actually in debt because you're denying the means to live. I'm Astra Taylor. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on debt abolition.
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