Skip to main content

One Organizer’s Story

In the wake of Trump being elected, I knew lots of bad things were on the horizon. I also knew that all of us making less than six figures a year would be more harshly and deeply impacted by the policies he would begin putting in place. The past two years have bared out that truth.

At the time I also was desperate after the devastation of the election to find a way to make concrete change in the lives of people who inspire me, who I work with, who are doing Black liberation work in so many different areas and in solidarity and collaboration with other marginalized communities. I was thinking about what were there things holding me back in my organizing, in my life generally.

And one of the things at the top of the list were my student loan payments that totaled over double what my rent was at the time. It made it difficult to think about taking an organizing position – positions which typically don’t pay that much.

Making my student loan payments at the full amount meant I couldn’t pay other bills. And at that time in my life I had zero credit card debt and had learned to live on a salary of around $38,000. Because my income was where it was I had signed up for an income-based repayment plan for my student loans and I diligently paid my student loan payments at the income-adjusted rate.

After a year of this, I noticed that my principal balance was going UP and not down.

And to be honest, I was livid and I didn’t understand how this was happening when I was so proud of making my on time payments. I was doing everything right, everything they had said to do.

I wanted to understand what was happening. So I called into the helpline. I was told a couple of things that were, to put it mildly, disheartening.

First, I learned about the process of ‘capitalization’. It’s a process where any unpaid interest is added each quarter to the principal balance. Under one of the income-based repayment plans instituted under the Obama era, I was allowed to make lower payments based on my income, but the interest that goes unpaid still accrues (it’s a not truly reduced payment in that sense) — and then is added into the principal amount each quarter. So even if one is making payments on-time, on an income-based repayment plan, your principal balances still grows and grows each quarter. And then at the end of a 25 year period of paying these income-based payments, any remaining balance in the principal (which remember would have been growing that whole time), would be forgiven.

That sounds nice, but there, of course, is a catch.

So the second thing that I found out was that any remaining principal balance is “forgiven” at tax penalty after 25 years. Yes, that’s correct–a tax penalty. My best guess for what that would mean for me, is that at the rate my student loans were growing that penalty would amount to somewhere between $115,000 and $125,000.

So at the age of 60, I would be facing down $125,000 (or more in taxes). And thanks to a different presidential regime, if I were unable to pay this tax penalty, they would just take my social security (or whatever is left of it by then).

So that all amounts to no way out of what I consider to be unjust lending practices. And of course, one can no longer claim bankruptcy for these student loans after policies put in place by President Bush. After I found all of this out, I thought, well what do you do when you can’t figure out something on your own?

What do you do when the lie of individualism becomes disturbingly revealed in a very apparent way? You ask for help.

What do you do when the lie of individualism becomes disturbingly revealed in a very apparent way? You ask for help.

So I did. I asked for help. I originally reached out to a group of people that I am in community with for help. My original ask was to form some way of lending me money to pay off my loans, and I would pay back the individuals or the group that lended me the money at a lower or no-interest rate — with no process of capitalization. To me this seemed fair at the time, I still have a growing understanding of the depths of which the system of Capitalism has affected my life. The group came to call themselves the Returners of the Stolen Wealth group, or the Returners for short. They were excited to help and also articulated that they’d like the project to help more than just me. From there, we began a journey together that has created the current project. I reached out to the organizers that I have worked with or known through the movement. Before long, I had a number of all Black organizers who have dedicated their lives to Black self-determination and liberation. The collective debt amount totaled around $1.2 Million so we decided to cap the group, because we thought that was a challenging amount to try to raise. The Returners group also decided that they weren’t interested in lending the money, but were interested in a reparations framework. Meaning they wanted to find a way to pay off the student loans for people and forgive the student loans. Specifically as a form of reparation for Black people. And we have been trying to figure out what that means ever since and the path has been a winding, challenging and beautiful journey.