Can’t pay, won’t pay: Building a debtor’s union in D.C.
OSCD via Twitter

The student debt crisis in the United States has reached a whopping $1.7 trillion, which sharpens the contradictions of so-called ‘American exceptionalism.’ After hosting an event with organizers from the Debt Collective and the Poor People’s Campaign, organizers from the Claudia Jones School for Political Education interviewed an organizer from the newly established D.C. Chapter of the Debt Collective on behalf of People’s World.

Wes Vanderburgh, preferred pronouns he/they, is a new organizer with the Debt Collective after attending their Jubilee School in Summer 2020. Originally from southern New Hampshire, they have been active in community organizing and leftist politics since attending Saint Anselm College for their undergraduate studies.

They are a 23-year-old young worker that now lives in Washington, D.C. and are crushed under the burden of more than $80,000 in student loan debt, leading to the cruel reality of not being able to create wealth for themselves from owning a home, business, land, or other form of private or personal property that can generate wealth within U.S. monopoly capitalism.

Wes Vanderburgh

In this conversation, Wes describes their personal relationship to debt, the interlocking connections between debt, white supremacy, and capitalism, and their work in organizing debtor’s unions amidst the economic crisis and pandemic. We hope this interview gives readers some insights into different forms of organizing around issues that affect the majority of working people in this country.

Join the student debt strike today!

People’s World: Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your personal relationship to debt? Also, why it is significant to talk about debt in the context of the current public health crisis, the economic crisis, the uprising for Black lives, and the 2020 elections?

Wes Vanderburgh: My name is Wes Vanderburgh, and I am no longer ashamed to say I owe a lot of debt. I ‘owe’ over $80,000 in federal and private student loans. I accumulated this debt following the path my parents made possible for me, which was to obtain a college degree that would propel me into a high-paying job. Instead, I have massive debt and a job that pays just $1 more than minimum wage.

I have felt afraid, embarrassed, guilty, cynical, and most recently empowered because of my debt. Since joining the Debt Collective, however, I know that I am not alone in my experience nor my feelings. Most importantly, I have learned that if debtors come together in collective action, we can reverse our individual powerlessness and take back control over our lives.

In terms of the current moment, talking about debt is extremely relevant. Debt is a connecting link in the chain that binds the three defining features of 2020: the pandemic, mass unemployment, and a mounting evictions crisis, and police brutality. If one loses their job because their employer shut down due to COVID-19 (as I did), one may have to finance basic needs via a personal credit card. That may include rent as well. And if a family member contracts COVID-19 or needs other routine or emergency medical care, then it’s likely those costs will lead to medical bills, repayment plans, and, you guessed it, more debt.

Police brutality also has some of its roots in debt, specifically municipal debt that cities and states have incurred in funding basic needs as a result of budget cuts to these areas since the days of Reaganomics. Policing Black and brown communities extracts resources from those already living precarious financial lives by forcing those who are incarcerated and their families to pay for legal proceedings, bail, fines, fees, etc. Thus, cities transfer their debts to Black and brown families. Debt is thus in the background of many of the pressing concerns facing the working class at the moment, and that’s why it is critical to raise it to consciousness to begin to organize to abolish it.

PW: Can you discuss the relationship between debt, capitalism, and white supremacy a bit more? Did you understand these connections when you were taking out loans for school?

WV: Debt is a meeting point of various systems of oppression, including white supremacy, ableism, and patriarchy. Debt is also a convenient method of exploiting the working class even further to generate ever higher returns for capital.

Debt in its current form is a result of the extension of credit to many sectors of the working class and the concomitant gutting of state-funded social services (including public institutions of higher education), both of which began in the 1970s. This in turn is a function of the administrative turn in capitalism, in which individuals and families are tasked with funding their own basic necessities, a reversal of the social welfare state that had existed in this country previously.

Now, instead of the state managing a minimum threshold of survival, however flimsy and inequitable, that task has been tossed to the private sector, and the working class has to guarantee its own survival by offering its only asset as collateral: its labor-power, promised to various debtors in perpetuity (let’s not forget that one cannot discharge their student loans in bankruptcy or even in death).

This situation only gets more and more complicated—and cruel—for those workers who sit at the intersections of various oppressed identities. BIPOC women and trans folx, for example, are more likely than white counterparts of all genders to be over-burdened with debt, often on predatory terms that render full repayment almost impossible. And if one has a disability that impedes one’s ability to work, and/or that requires expensive medical treatment, full repayment is probably out of the picture entirely.

This doesn’t mean that white men, for example, aren’t burdened with debt, because of course, they are. Rather, in naming the problem we have to be precise and name it not from a position of privilege but rather from a perspective that is as expansive as possible. While everyone deserves debt abolition, we would achieve that in name only if we failed to redress the particularities of debt as it falls across lines of race, gender, ability, sexuality, citizenship status, etc.

Of course, I wish I knew all this when I was applying to college! I would have been much choosier and pursued more scholarships. That being said, no individual solution can overcome a problem this systematic. Honestly, if I knew all this at the outset, I may not have even gone to college; who knows if I would have been ‘better off’ than I am now. I probably would not have been as radicalized, though, so perhaps it’s a win-lose situation.

People’s World: What introduced you to the Debt Collective? And what potential do you see for this organization in the struggle to cancel student debt (and subsequently all debt)? What does the term “jubilee” mean to you? 

WV: I stumbled upon the Debt Collective by chance and also by necessity. I discovered the website, which led to networking with organizers, out of a frantic internet search for resources to oppose or mitigate private student loan repayments, as my first payment was coming due soon. It so happened that one of the search results was for the Debt Collective, but I wouldn’t have been searching at all if I were still in deferment or were facing different circumstances.

I think that this organization has amazing potential, and I don’t just say that as an organizer with it! Because of the centrality of debt within the dominance of finance capital, any damage to this pillar would threaten the whole structure, so to speak. Coordinated, sustained, and publicized opposition to debt, whether it takes the form of a debt strike and/or other means of struggle, threatens to seriously disrupt the flow of trillions of dollars that rightfully belong to us. No other organization is taking this on as its guiding vision, and for that reason, I see huge potential in the Debt Collective.

The word ‘Jubilee’ is often thrown around in the context of debt abolition, for example in the name of the Debt Collective’s organizers training called Jubilee School. I’m not too familiar with the term at this point, so I need to do more research. My ignorance notwithstanding, it connotes joy to me. It makes me think of triumph, success, of having worked at something very hard for very long, and finally being able to reap the benefits.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Spanish word ‘jubilar, jubilarse’ means ‘to retire,’ as in retire from a job, but it shares the root of ‘jubilee.’ To me, the Spanish word links the idea of rest and happiness with that of finishing a term of service or employment, and the well-earned relaxation one enjoys as a consequence. Perhaps one day we can find out what ‘jubilee’ means in practice by being debt-free ourselves!

People’s World: What power do you see in organizing debtor’s unions? What do you want to provide folks who are struggling from debt, especially in the D.C. Metro area? 

WV: The power in a debtors’ union is first and foremost a power of recognition, of community. This is not to be underestimated. The embodied knowledge (emotional, firsthand knowledge not reducible to theoretical knowledge) that there are so many other people struggling with debt like me is overwhelmingly positive. It reminds me that I have others to lean on and draw strength from. We can share wisdom, stories, and the laughter of those who ‘get it.’

This community stands in stark contrast to the experience of calling your loan provider with trepidation and having a conversation with an ‘expert’ who treats you like just another case number. From this community then comes our ultimate power, which is the pooling of our disobedience into one, coordinated body that collectively owes trillions of dollars that it refuses to repay.

Debt collectors may be able to come after us individually—but not when we link arms with hundreds, thousands, maybe one day millions of others. If we can build the community to sustain the level of coordinated nonpayment needed, then we will be unstoppable. We’re not just talking about debt forgiveness any longer. We’d be talking about abolishing the police, universal healthcare, free higher education, in short, a society in which going into debt for things that undergird human dignity would be impossible. Folx across the DMV [D.C.-Maryland-Virginia] can certainly resonate with this.

To you, I say: come join us! Debtors of D.C., unite!

People’s World: Any closing remarks for readers?

WV: I hope that this brief interview can inspire you to question the stigmas that keep you shackled to your own debts. Debt is not your fault—no matter what kinds of choices you’ve made, where you live, what kind of job you have, who you are.

Debt is the fault of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and every other system that conspires to deny human potential and freedom. You may not be ready to initiate a debt strike on reading this—and that is ok!

The debt strike is only one piece of the struggle against debt, and we need everyone to advance this multi-front struggle. Come check us out. Watch testimonials from others like me. Look at what we’re doing in our community. Above all, consider what kind of life you could have if you didn’t have to repay your debts.

Fight for that future, because you’re worth it.


Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.