A few blocks from the White House and the State Department, Astra Taylor was doing the grunt work of activism: ordering pizza. There were 14 black-clad protesters milling around in a hotel suite, overseen by a stipple portrait of George Washington, to which someone had attached a handwritten note saying HEY DIRTY BABY I GOT YOUR MONEY. Taylor, who is 35, had managed the trip to Washington from around the country, arranging to book the protesters into hotel rooms and the like, and now had to feed them. “It’s coming soon,” she cooed over an iPhone.
The protesters had assembled to meet with officials from the Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. All had attended one of the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges, run by a for-profit higher-ed company notorious for fleecing its predominantly poor students. The school had promised enrollees jobs it couldn’t deliver and given them worthless degrees. Facing a widespread press drubbing and a federal investigation, the school announced at the end of April that it would close all of its campuses. “They lied about so much,” said Latonya Suggs, a 28-year-old from Cincinnati. She is now in $40,000 in debt after taking out loans for a criminal-justice degree that did not qualify her to get a job as a probation officer, despite what Corinthian had said. “And I’m not asking for forgiveness, because I didn’t do anything wrong.” Not moral forgiveness, at least. The protesters, including Suggs, had stopped paying back their loans. They believed the federal government — which is accountable for the school’s accreditation and issued the loans — was as culpable for their mess as Corinthian was. Therefore, they were demanding that the government forgive their debts.
“We’re trying to apply pressure directly,” Taylor added. “Making a film would have been a very indirect way of doing it.” But perhaps a more obvious course for her; Taylor, string-bean thin and moon-eyed, is a prolific writer and a cerebral, creative spirit best known for a pair of documentaries about the philosopher Slavoj Žižek and his colleagues. She also plays the guitar — “I’m not the fanciest guitar player, so I play with a lot of fuzz” — for the indie band Neutral Milk Hotel, which is headed by her husband, Jeff Mangum.
It was during the financial crisis and recession, she said, that she started to feel compelled to influence rather than just examine and describe. She was procrastinating on a book she was trying to write — “about the legacy of the 1960s and social movements, but I couldn’t do it” — and got involved with the Occupy movement, helping to create a digital newsletter, Occupy! An OWS-Inspired Gazette. An activist was born. For that stillborn book, she had done “insane amounts of research and multiple drafts. It gave me this sense of social movements as something you can’t just make happen. It’s a wave. It’s a bigger thing. And if you’re lucky, you ride the wave.”
She went on: “I wanted to be in the movement and not be mediated.” And she kept on drifting further from thought into action, helping to spearhead the Rolling Jubilee, a campaign launched in 2012 that takes in donations, uses the money to buy distressed debt for pennies on the dollar, then forgives it rather than demanding it be repaid. “We were like, ‘Maybe we can buy a million dollars of medical debt!’ ” Taylor said. “And we saw all this Corinthian debt on the markets.”
The Rolling Jubilee bought that instead, ultimately forgiving $17 million of it. Taylor and her fellow volunteers connected with the dozens, now hundreds, of students railing against Corinthian online. The trillion-dollar burden of educational debt became her cause — or at least her way of railing against the broader issue, as she sees it, of inequality, stagnant wages, and poor government stewardship of the public interest. “You can say abstractly that you want to be involved in something, but there has to be something real in the world for you to grab onto, there has to be something for you to touch,” she said. “This is something we found a way to experiment with.” She decided to help to pull together a big, broad, attention-grabbing debt strike with the long-term vision of putting together a nationwide coalition of debtors. “If you owe the bank a thousand dollars, the bank owns you,” the nascent Debt Collective’s tagline reads. “If you owe the bank a trillion dollars, you own the bank. Together, we own the bank.”
Taylor does have some personal experience of student debt. She grew up in Athens, Georgia, raised by a scientist father and artist mother. “They weren’t anarchists. They were more counterculture,” she said. “It kind of spoiled me for a nine-to-five job.” She did not set foot in a classroom until high school, then went to the University of Georgia and, for a year, to Brown. That time in New England, along with grad school at the New School for Social Research*, left her $40,000 in debt, on which she defaulted in 2008, owing to a lack of income and general disorganization. “I crossed that threshold into ‘four’ ” — meaning $40,000 — “and thought, I’ll never pay it off. I’ll never have a house.”
Of course, a temporary default is not a permanent default, and a graduate degree from the New School is not a certificate from a seedy for-profit, she is quick to add. Taylor paid off her debt when her career got going a few years later. “I’m in a very different situation now,” she said, “between books and rock and roll and movies. One thing that’s motivated me is to feel that lack of stress. Not to be drowning in debt is to be able to decide what to do with your time. I get to do this.”
In the future, “this” will be making a new documentary, financed by the Canadian government, called What Is Democracy? It will also be touring with Neutral Milk Hotel this spring. “The world we’re in [with Debt Collective] is about making arguments,” she said, explaining that stepping away and spending time with her husband and the band is a useful reminder that not everyone is in rhetorical combat all the time.
Lately, though, she’s been living on the road, trying to build solidarity among debtors, reaching out to students, sending them money, writing. “I’d be in the back of the band’s van writing op-eds: Nobody should go into debt because they have cancer!” she said, taking on a deep, scolding voice, then laughing. And in Washington, there was more of the scut work of activism: calling offices on the Hill, reaching out to reporters, shepherding protesters around. Still, “it’s a collaborative thing,” she said. “That’s part of the magic. I’m not writing my name on it.” Nevertheless, the trip to Washington had the distinct feel of a school trip with Mrs. Taylor as chaperone. She seemed a little frazzled. “We are lobbying!” Taylor said, as if surprised. “But we’re not getting paid to say ‘Round-Up is safe to drink.’ ” They weren’t getting paid at all, in fact: She and the other organizers had raised the $12,000 that the trip cost mostly by begging little donations from friends.
After $100 of that money went to the pizza guy, Taylor, the other organizers, and the 14 protesters headed to their closed-door meeting with the federal officials. During it, they handed Ted Mitchell, the undersecretary of Education, a giant red box filled with testimonies from nearly 300 borrowers, arguing why they should not have to repay their loans. “It’s a box of pain,” Taylor said. They told their stories. They explained why Corinthian had defrauded them. And they emerged later in the afternoon a little deflated. The officials were sympathetic, but not yet helpful in any active way. “This isn’t a pity party,” Suggs had said to Mitchell. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I want you to do your job.” Taylor agreed. “Emotional relief is good,” she said. “Debt relief is better.”
*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.