Astra Taylor & The Debt Collective: Challenging Exploitative Finance

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 3 December 2019

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Astra Taylor joined the Shuttleworth Fellowship in 2015 to empower people to take control of their financial data and shift public thinking about the nature of debt. Her project, The Debt Collective, has exposed predatory lending practices, shone a light on debt models blurred by purposefully opaque laws and mobilised thousands of people to defend their rights.

Her fellowship has had a huge impact and continues to push a new narrative. To date, Astra and The Debt Collective community have helped student debtors win relief worth over a billion dollars, forced policy change at government level, and been highly influential in the thinking behind the American College for All Act of 2019 proposal.

And while a new incumbent of the White House created significant challenges midway through her three-year fellowship, Astra and the team have shown the strategic nous needed to keep afloat and stay highly relevant amidst the ebb and flow of today’s testing political currents. This is her Shuttleworth story…

“The Foundation gives you this space to go off-mission, where learning is valuable. It’s really rare.”

Astra Taylor & The Debt Collective: Background

In 2011, writer, filmmaker and community organiser Astra Taylor found herself amongst the mass of tents and banners of the Occupy Movement to join the protests against financial inequality. While the movement petered out the following year, her experiences attending and participating in talks and workshops gave birth to something new, highly focussed and practical: educating the public about debt.

Together with a small group of founders, Astra established the Strike Debt and Rolling Jubilee campaigns: the former encouraged collective action and offered advice to escape the predatory debt system; the latter bought medical and student debts for pennies on the dollar to write them off. But while both provided some good wins, these strategies had limits. A new idea, The Debt Collective, was established to make further progress.

“Debtors don’t know who they owe money to,” says Astra, reflecting on the lack of public understanding about credit and borrowing. “Debts are a tradable commodity, bought and sold, cut up by brokers, banks, and investors. There is an asymmetry - not just an economic asymmetry but an information asymmetry.

“Banks and brokers and lenders…all they do is look at the financial landscape from their perspective and they can see the whole story. But each indebted individual is just a point on the map. They don’t have the entire picture.

“Our idea was to use technology to help debtors understand their financial position and figure out who they owe money to, while aggregating information to better understand the economic landscape.”

Funding and freedom to experiment

When Astra applied to the Foundation, we were initially sceptical of the importance of The Debt Collective. Like many, we felt everyone should be accountable to the debts they knowingly take on.

It wasn’t long before Astra exposed us to the systemic realities of life for debtors - especially in the United States - and shifted our thinking about everything we thought we knew regarding the commodification of debt, impacts on debtors, and the predatory nature of collection agencies and lenders. Exploitative practices crush borrowers and have significant consequences; the vulnerable and minority groups are often those that suffer most. It is all too easy to blame individual lenders for bad behaviour, but the problem here is systemic.

Take student loans. Every year, young adults, perhaps barely eighteen, are handed a debt of tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of a university education. None have any conceivable idea of how their financial futures will pan out, other than one certainty: interest charges on top of federal-funded loans from private companies. Pressure to pay mounts on the student over a lifetime, compound interest effects significantly increases their debt, and only a lucky few will pay it down before they are well into middle age - if at all.

Astra’s Fellowship began with student debts in mind - in particular, those facing debts from worthless college programs unrecognised by employers or other universities. The initial plan was to build a platform and a suite of tools for debtors of all descriptions, but there was an opportunity to test some early ideas with a simple mobile app.

Developed in alliance with students - some of whom went on a ‘debtor’s strike’ - the app enabled defrauded borrowers to challenge their loans online. It made a powerful impression.

“In the first year, we had a modest goal of submitting one dispute for every state in the US,” Astra explains. “It turned out we sent over 10,000.” To date, nearly 200,000 of these disputes have been submitted, through the Debt Collective’s app and other channels modelled on their example.

“The app unleashed this crisis in Washington DC that led to new rule-making and the clarification of federal law. There was this fantastic momentum, and it took off in a way we didn’t anticipate.

“It took a lot of time and resources,” she recalls. “I remember thinking: ‘Oh gosh, I have to get back to the mission and build this platform.’ But the Foundation gives you this space to go off-mission, where learning is valuable. It’s really rare. And the app taught us what a community of debtors might need and how to serve them better.”

Breaking new ground

The chance to experiment offered Astra and the team a deep insight and new perspectives into the debt landscape.

“Originally, we thought we could scrape financial information or maybe get people to give us their information,” she says. “But why would a debtor trust you? We saw that people would share data if there is an incentive and our motivation to them was wiping out 50-60,000 dollar debts.

“It was a simple epiphany and a realisation we needed to offer a service to people. That practical learning, going out into the field and engaging with the human element, and also engaging with the state was really valuable.”

Building on the success and experience of the app, attention turned back to the platform. A whole suite of tools - the first of its kind - were developed, enabling citizens to dispute debt collectors, tax and wage garnishments, and credit scores. Data gathering was an integral part of the work and allowed The Debt Collective to collect and collate information at a grassroots level to map financial structures. All of this data led to important questions about openness, transparency, and privacy.

“The financial structures we are up against are so powerful and the degree of closed is so profound,” says Astra. “There are so many layers, and you are dealing with purposefully obscure political processes, lobbying, and influence. It’s this opacity that allows information and economic asymmetry to happen.

“But our power isn’t from prying open the Bank of America’s back end. We are going to the people and building trust and respect, illuminating the field from the grassroots up. So there are serious concerns about privacy and security and protecting our members.

“We only use their data in an ethical way - we try to push for transparency for the powerful and privacy for regular people. We definitely haven’t achieved openness, but we are breaking new ground. Historically, debtor revolts would end in riots, so trying to organise everyone in this way is really novel.”

Almost Trumped

The Debt Collective made extraordinary progress with the debt strike to win new rights, overwhelm the Department of Education and force rule change under the Obama administration. It was no mean feat. The Democratic Party might have said right-on things in public, but its main concerns was keeping a check on spending, inflation, and interest rates rather than giving people what they need. And at least with a government of outwardly liberal intentions - even if superficial - there is an elasticity you can push against to force change.

The other side of the Amercican political equation only offers brick walls. Donald Trump and the new Republican administration held rather unsurprising views on student debtors and immediately set about rolling back the rights Astra and the team had secured. It was a hard and frustrating lesson: you can establish a new policy, but it can always be overturned. A necessary change of strategy duly followed.

“We would only be able to win additional rights under a liberal administration,” explains Astra. “You have to recognise the limits of your tactics, so instead we are focussed on helping people enact the rights they have already. It’s bureaucratically impossible at the moment because the powers that be make it so difficult.

“But if you weaponise and collectivise those rights instead of leaving each person to fight for themselves, you can take it to the next level. And then it opens up corporate targets as opposed to government targets.”

These challenges are still very real today, but The Debt Collective continues to build momentum. The platform is complete, they are engaging and mobilising more members, and helping others join those already freed from the shackles of indebtedness. Looking ahead, they are launching the next phase of their higher education campaign, building on their victories and the fact they have influenced two of the leading presidential candidates to embrace student debt cancellation as a core campaign promises (Senators Elizath Warren and Bernie Sanders have both credited the Debt Collective for their efforts). There’s no clearer sign that the public conversation about debt relief has changed dramatically in a few short years.

“We have to keep going out in the world and prove the utility of this tool,” says Astra. “Part of me is just really proud we are using the democratic power of the Internet. Digital tech can enhance political organising and build real power for people.

“It’s an open tool,” she continues. “Not just open source, but we’re also agnostic in terms of who uses it. We don’t want to hoard the platform, we want to let other groups use it as they see fit.

“And I also think the platform is interesting because, historically, activists have not been very innovative. Most use the internet to send email blasts or petition links or try to raise money. There’s not a lot of creativity around actually creating and building new technological tools - it’s just been kind of stagnant.”

Personal Reflections & Moving On

Astra graduated to Shuttleworth Alumni status towards the end of 2018. As The Debt Collective movement extends its reach, builds a national community and continues to influence political leaders and global thinking, she can look back on her Fellowship with a tremendous amount of pride.

Not only has she made a monumental social return on our investment in her, but in exposing the complex and obfuscated financial systems that work against society, she has also highlighted important questions about the human relationship with money, finance and debt.

More than any other fellow, she has opened our eyes to the privileges, legalities and systemic flaws that work against swathes of society and her work has had an empowering impact on the lives of others. These are themes we now intend to explore further in the future. She has also made a significant contribution to the Shuttleworth community and her commitment to engage has paid off with personal learning, too.

“This community has given me an international perspective,” she explains. “It’s made me less parochial in my worldview and less North American-centric. In terms of opening one’s mind, that’s really acute. It’s shown me what an isolated American I am.

“Also, having a private support group to share your successes and failures with has been great. I think a lot of us use it authentically. Throughout the Fellowship I have reported all these events and sometimes you go on a call and say: ‘I’m winning!’

“Other times you’ve just got three rejection letters, and Betsy Devos is personally trying to make your life hell. Both are allowed in the Foundation. It’s a safe place to be open and honest, and I think that’s unique.

“It is a genuine fellowship, but also an international one. It’s expanded my horizons and I really didn’t know that would be part of the deal.”

In the year since her fellowship ended, Astra’s profile has continued to grow significantly. At a fundamental level, her work has always been about justice, and how cultures and countries are built on rules often ignored by those that dictate them. Her work is expanding further into these themes, and she has released an insightful and thought-provoking film - What is Democracy? - and written a companion book, Democracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone.

Astra continues to work with The Debt Collective to help exploited citizens dispute debts and challenge creditors. “Tens of millions of people are indebted and anxious,” she says. “We know there is massive potential for this project to grow. This fight isn’t over.”

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