The Craft of Campaigns podcast highlights stories and lessons from issue-based action campaigns beyond one-off mobilizations and single election cycles. Campaigns channel grassroots energy to win concrete victories, build winning coalitions, and topple pillars of power standing in the way of justice. In each episode, we interview organizers about how a campaign unfolded, the strategy decisions they made, and the lessons we can draw for our current moment.

For this Craft of Campaigns podcast, I talked with Eleni Schermer and Ann Bowers of Debt Collective. You can read the writeup below or check out the full podcast here


It’s hard to believe that a mass movement to cancel student debt was openly ridiculed when Occupy Wall Street activists first proposed it in 2011. Just over ten years later, President Biden authorized billions in student debt cancellation — months before the midterms. During his own tight midterm race, Senator Raphael Warnock pushed Biden to take even more dramatic executive action to cancel student debt. (Organizers are pointing out that the president could now cancel debt without waiting on federal courts to authorize it.) 

How did the landscape on student debt change in such a short span of time? Organizers with the OWS offshoot Strike Debt — later reconstituted as the Debt Collective — recruited hundreds of student debtors to become active participants in a campaign that radically reshaped the student debt organizing terrain. They began crowdfunding debt purchases on the secondary market (a tactic later borrowed by John Oliver's late night show) as an outreach tactic. The “Rolling Jubilee,” as it was called, abolished more than $32 million of medical, student, payday loan, and probation debt. 

The organizers (themselves largely debtors or former debtors) described that crowdfunding effort as their campaign scouting phase. They wanted to test out the basic principle behind labor organizing — alone, a single worker is weak compared to the power of the boss, but together… — to bring millions of debtors together to threaten creditors. What if they said, "Can't Pay, Won't Pay" all at the same time?

Organizers invited student debtors to virtual and in person "Debtors' Assemblies" where they could tell their stories and learn about the systemic failures that led to their indebtedness. They taught each other about how the higher education debt system was put in place over the last several decades; how student debt skyrocketed by over 700% from 1995 to 2017, growing from $187 billion to $1.4 trillion; how successive administrations had done nothing to slow it down. Over 200,000 students across the US had attended for-profit schools like ITT Tech, which had been accused of defrauding its students; as of 2014, those borrowers were still on the hook to lenders. Debt Collective organizers developed a theory that the Obama Administration, as the underwriter of those loans (through the Department of Education), could discharge them but was declining to use its power. Former students would need to be organized to make it happen.  

The Collective’s campaign to win debt cancellation for students of Corinthian Colleges Inc. (a for-profit high education institution) sought to change the story of student debt and force the Obama and Biden administrations to discharge billions in outstanding loans. At the same time, the Collective’s organizers inspired debtors to move beyond shame over their debt and begin to think of themselves as victims of a predatory student loan system — who could use their debt as leverage. 

Organizing around student debt wasn't easy: most of those debtors, particularly those who had attended for-profit schools accused of fraud, initially felt shame, not anger, when the fraud was exposed. But when Debt Collective organizers bought $4 million in student debt for $100,000 — erasing the debt of 2,700 former Corinthian Colleges Inc. students — organizers communicated their belief that the students weren't to blame. After purchasing and canceling Corithian students’ debt, the collective continued to build relationships with them. They found them in Facebook groups with names like "Everest College Avengers," a group instigated by Nathan Hornes, who would become a key part of the evolving campaign to cancel all student debt.

Focusing on Corinthians students ended up giving the Debt Collective significant inside-game leverage. They announced their debt purchase the same week the Obama Administration sued Corinthians Inc, putting the debtor organizers on the same side as their target: the Department of Education, which organizers thought was moving too slowly to hold Corinthians accountable. But the collective didn't want to be in the position of pleading for Obama's aides to work faster. They wanted them to work differently and to take seriously the demand that hundreds of thousands of defrauded students deserved to have their loans canceled. The question was how to force the Department of Education to do this. What if the student debtors turned their inability or unwillingness to pay back their debts into a collective action, like a debt strike? Collective organizers invited two dozen Corinthians debtors to a strategy meeting in San Francisco, where they weighed the risks and opportunities. Fifteen decided to go forward with launching the nation's first student debt strike by announcing they would immediately stop paying back their student loans. Over 300 former students joined once the strike began. 

Following the strike's launch in February 2015, Rohit Chopra, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s chief, contacted them to see if they would like to tell their stories in Washington. They met with high-level CFPB, Department of Education, and Treasury Department officials, who probably thought they would get congratulated for taking initial steps to hold the for-profit education company accountable. Instead, the group "dropped a bombshell" on the Obama aides, as organizer and Corinthians debt striker Ann Bowers recounted later. They had discovered an obscure provision of the 1965 Higher Education Act, "borrower defense," that allowed the government to discharge the loans of students who attended schools accused of fraud. But there was no formal process for requesting loan cancellation, so organizers created their own application for debt relief and quietly solicited former students of Corinthians, ITT Tech, and The Art Institute to apply. “We had a red box full of them and Luke, one of our legal guys, picked it up and slammed it on the desk,” Bowers recalled. "And he said, 'We did your work for you.' They were stunned."

The collective continued to gather borrower defense applications on their website over the spring, eventually pulling together tens of thousands of submissions. A few months later, the Department of Education copied their application form nearly verbatim when it launched an official application. By the end of 2016, over 82,000 borrowers had used the application to file claims for loan cancellation, and Bowers had even been invited to participate in the committee that created new debt discharge rules. As Debt Collective co-founder Hannah Appel pointed out later, striking had won them a seat at the bargaining table.

The Debt Collective didn't simply sit at the negotiating table, though. Throughout 2015 and 2016, they continued to put public pressure on the administration to move faster and initiated direct actions challenging the logic of student debt itself. As just one example, dozens of dues-paying Debt Collective members traveled to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Professionals conference in New Orleans in the summer of 2015, where they performed satirical public actions exposing the reality that Black, Indigenous, and other borrowers of color are more likely to have unsustainable debt loads and pilloring the financial aid industry for its complicity in millions of students becoming debt-burdened. By the end of 2016, the administration had canceled over $400 million in debt for more than 30,000 borrowers.

But the Debt Collective’s inside game vanished after Trump's election, forcing the group to pivot back to building a debtors' union. They held Debtors' Assemblies in cities around the country, agitating former students to see themselves not only as victims of a predatory industry but as a sleeping giant with untapped leverage. With around one assembly organized each month for the last decade, several thousand debtors have attended. They recruited thousands of dues-paying members largely through volunteer organizers, some of whom started in-person chapters or national committees, of which there are about a dozen today. And several thousand people have donated to their debt relief crowdfunding campaigns. 

They continued to shape the narrative around student debt by amplifying the stories of borrowers. That narrative started to go mainstream with the introduction of the College for All Act by Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2019 — with Corinthians strikers at their side. During the Democratic presidential primary campaign, Biden promised to "forgive" all undergraduate student debt for borrowers making less than $125,000 a year and a minimum of $10,000 for all borrowers, with even more relief for students who attended HBCUs. After Biden was elected, the Collective announced the Biden Jubilee 100: one hundred new debt strikers who would each refuse to pay their student loans in his presidency's first 100 days. One of the campaign’s goals was to make Black women borrowers visible. 

Throughout 2021, local and federal officials called on Biden to use his authority to cancel all student debt. And although he reiterated his willingness to cancel some debt, administration officials punted, saying they were still "studying" their own legal authority. But then Debt Collective organizers discovered, through Freedom of Information Act requests, that the administration's lawyers had already written a memo delineating presidential authority to cancel student debt, prompting congressional Democrats to demand he release it.

Doubling down on the pressure campaign, dozens of organizations, from labor unions to the Dream Defenders, sent hundreds of people to a "Pick Up the Pen, Joe" day of action at the Department of Education headquarters in April 2022, thirty days before the latest scheduled payment pause deadline. Along with a Debtors' Assembly, the event included a "debt burn" during which borrowers wrote down something that represents their debt on a piece of paper and then burned it together. A month later, the group purchased and canceled the debt of five hundred Black women – all former students of Bennett College — to push Biden to follow through on his promise to forgive the debts of HBCU borrowers. The organization followed with a documentary on Black women borrowers produced in partnership with The Intercept. They also broadened their organizing to focus on the fastest-growing group of student debtors, seniors, with a featured story in The New Yorker and an announcement of a "50 Over 50" debt strike. 

All of this had the effect of keeping pressure on Biden's team, which was also getting pushed publicly by Senate Democrats (who were themselves responding to pressure from organizations like New Georgia Project).

When the announcement finally came at the end of August that Biden was canceling up to $20,000 for Pell grant recipients and $10,000 for all borrowers, the Debt Collective tweeted its response: his action "didn't achieve a goal - it confirmed a method: organized debtors have power." The collective held a previously planned 50 Over 50 strike strategy call the following week. As organizer Eleni Schirmer related, many of the Debt Collective's members, saddled with over $100,000 in debt, weren't ready to celebrate what was a historic campaign victory: "Someone logged in and they were like, 'Look, I almost didn't come to this call tonight. I'm just so mad. I'm so insulted. Like, I'm supposed to be clapping? Like this is doing nothing for my loans. It's doing nothing for my payments. The only thing that's really this is gonna change is that now in January I'm gonna have to figure out how to come up with $500 a month.'" (The administration has since announced yet another pause on student debt repayments.) 

"And at the same time," Schirmer said, "twenty million people, when cancellation gets administered, will have their debts totally wiped away." Bowers expressed a similar sentiment in the days following the announcement: "It is disappointing, but it's a stepping stone. It shows us if we keep going, you know, we can climb that mountain with stepping stones, basically."

According to Schirmer, the collective has already done that work: "Over the next year, the goal is really to draw out that student debtors are also medical debtors, are also housing debtors, and are working in indebted cities and sending their kids to indebted schools.The idea is to draw out the connections of debt and indebted life. That's one of the major things that we hear from Mitt Romney, etc, is like,  'Well, what are you going to do after you cancel student debt, cancel housing debt, cancel medical debt?' And we say, 'Hell yeah we are, absolutely.’ So that's what's next: To stitch all of these issues together, to see them not as single issue campaigns but part of the same project."

In reflecting on the lessons from this stage of the fight to abolish debt, Schirmer points, first, to the Debt Collective’s creation of real human connection that destigmatized debt, neutralized the shame many of the group's members carried, and transformed it into a feeling of collective power: "The real signature organizing move of debt organizing is making space where people can say, 'Hey, we see you, we see you as, as having more than just a drawer full of unopened loan statements.' And we see that those loan statements are actually part of our power and we all put them together and can organize around them."

She also points to the group's willingness to "hold to this relentless vision of what justice demands, to cancel all debt." She says she told the 50 Over 50 debtors, "You all have been pushing this demand, and you got a partial win of this demand. You didn't get it all canceled. You got a partial win. And so you're not starting from zero. The baseline is now this many people, this much debt has been canceled." And she notes that even as the group received access to insiders at the Obama Administration, and high-ranking congressional Democrats and presidential candidates, they never moderated their demands, choosing instead to "hold the left pole, keeping the demand far to the left, and having it backed by demands and action to follow, like a strike demanding free college for all.


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