Take the Last Bite

We take a bite out of student loan debt cancellation with Juan Ramiro Sarmiento (he/him), press secretary of Young Invincibles. We examine the history of higher education becoming less affordable, the emergence of student loan debt cancellation as a political platform, and upcoming legal battle over federal loan forgiveness.

Show Notes

We take a bite out of student loan debt cancellation with Juan Ramiro Sarmiento (he/him), press secretary of Young Invincibles. We examine the history of higher education becoming less affordable, the emergence of student loan debt cancellation as a political platform, and upcoming legal battle over federal loan forgiveness. 

Additional Resources & References
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Host: R.B. Brooks, they/them, director of programs for the Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity 

Cover art: Adrienne McCormick

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Creators & Guests

R.B. Brooks
Director of Programs, Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity
Justin Drwencke
Executive Director, Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity

What is Take the Last Bite?

Take the Last Bite is a direct counter to the Midwest Nice mentality— highlighting advocacy & activism by queer/trans communities in the Midwest region. Each episode unearths the often disregarded and unacknowledged contributions of queer & trans folks to social change through interviews, casual conversations and reflections on Midwest queer time, space, and place.

For questions, comments and feedback: lastbite@sgdinstitute.org

To support this podcast and the Institute, please visit sgdinstitute.org/giving

Host: R.B. Brooks, they/them, director of programs for the Midwest Institute for Sexuality & Gender Diversity

Cover Art: Adrienne McCormick

Hey, hi, hello y'all, this is R.B., freshly thawed out of a giant northern Minnesota blizzard to bring you another episode of Take the Last Bite, a show where we boil up a pot of Midwest Nice and toss it into the negative degree temperatures to watch it wisp away into frozen powder.

Hopefully your holiday seasons and winter breaks so far have been restful, enjoyable and full of all the things that replenish your spoons. Certainly the holidays, topped with the bleak Midwest winter weather, can be a tricky time of year for queer and trans people. But we are also resourceful, tactful and creative when it comes to making the most out of complex situations.

Our team compiled a really cathartic list of ways to navigate the holidays, especially interactions with family and friends who maybe don’t “get it” or who may be outright dismissive or hostile toward our lived experiences.

Some of the highlights of our list, which included a batch of “wrong answers” were:
Bring a squirt bottle and spray anyone who misgenders you (this would also work with a Nerf gun)
Compliment your host on how much you love their gender neutral bathroom
Hook your phone up to a bluetooth speaker and blast the most obnoxious song you can find whenever someone tries to talk about politics

And maybe these aren’t wrong answers, but we also offer a few suggestions that are less focused on being petty (which is a totally valid approach) and focuses more on ensuring you’re taking care of yourself. Some of our self-care suggestions include:

Maintaining community whenever or however you can– FaceTime, video chat, Discord– whatever works for everyone to feel connected especially if you’re all far apart during the winter holidays

Do something ahead of time that will bring you peace of mind– such as listening to a podcast or playlist that lifts your spirits– instead of being anchored in the dread of going to a gathering you’re not excited about

Identify someone– a sibling or cousin– you can signal to when you need support navigating a situation or need a topic change

We’re all doing our best out here and whatever ways we can commit to prioritizing our own needs and safety during the holidays, the more tools we’ll have for future occasions and throughout our lives when it comes to combating intolerance and hateful ideologies.

As we wrap up 2022, I’m thrilled to say we’ll be doing another batch of small bites– which are our year-end mini-segments reflecting on lessons and experiences during the calendar year. This year, I posed the following prompts to our team:

What did you do this year that you didn’t think was possible for you to do?

Who taught you something transformative this year & what was that lesson?

So I also pose these questions to y’all, to consider what did you overcome this year, what are you taking into next year, and who played an integral part in getting you to this place? Our small bites episode will be the last episode of this season so watch for that in about two weeks.

On today’s episode, I chat with a dear friend of mine as we backtrack some history of higher education to understand how student loan debt cancellation has become such a key political talking point in the present– as well as looking on to the future to determine what’s up next for the battle over affordable college and student debt elimination.

Ramiro Sarmiento is the press secretary for Young Invincibles, an organization founded by students with the vision of all young people fully participating in the nation’s political process and having the economic opportunity to reach their fullest potential. He does a stunning job of breaking down this stressful, complex conversation about student loan debt cancellation and the history of higher education becoming unaffordable and I was so pleased to have him on the mic for this conversation.

Bundle up and grab a cup of hot chocolate for this episode…. of Take the Last Bite


Why can't we be in space with hundreds of other queer and trans folks and having these necessary conversations?

When it comes to dynamics around privilege and oppression, and around identity. Well intentioned isn’t actually good enough.

How far is too far to drive for a drag show? I don’t know, we’re in Duluth right now, I would straight up go to Nebraska, probably,

If you are not vibing, or something’s not right, or also like there’s an irreparable rupture, you have absolutely every right to walk away.

Definitely going to talk about Midwest Nice and if that's as real as it wants to think it is.

Midwest nice is white aggression. That's what it is.


All right, fam. So let's lay the scene here for a second about our coming into each other's ecosystem. I very distinctly remember going on a mandated little walk with you in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas. I don't even remember where we went, but we had both signed up for this very interesting, I'll use the Minnesota version of interesting, retreat called LeaderShape.

Oh, my God.

Yes. So that was an experience that could take up a whole other podcast episode, but we connected there and had just a very nice chill moment talking about ourselves. And I think from there, connected just based on all of the mess and magnanimity that was student activism at the University of Kansas. That's how we connected. And so now fast forward. We are kind of off doing our respective things, but I very much follow you on all the social medias, and you're doing some really incredible shit, and that's why you're here also, just because it's been too long. So I'm really happy to be in synchronous space with you right now. So why don't you start off with just introducing yourself, however you interpret that, but also including what is your relationship to the Midwest?

Yeah, thank you for having me. We do go way back.

So far back.

It was nice for you to remind everyone about our mandated walk. That's so true. I think somewhere in the woods and again, nowhere in Kansas, but I'm glad it happened because I got connected with you, a great human being. So I grew up in the Midwest. I'm from Kansas. I'm Mexican. I grew up in part, in northern Mexico as part of my upbringing. But most of my life has been in Kansas. Over half of my life has been lived in that state. And so that has shaped my perspective both in the country and then just as it relates to my own issues and identities that I hold. So definitely that has had a major influence, both in the way that I communicate Midwestern nice, as we referenced earlier, get a lot more with honey, but it definitely calls for raising attention to issues that are very much needing attention in the Midwest in particular.

But, yeah, I grew up there. I went to, I’m originally from Wichita. I went to the University of Kansas, where I met you. And my name, formally, Juan Ramiro Sarmiento, but I go by Romero, and you can call me that. He him. And I'm 28 years old, and I currently still reside, I work remotely, and I reside in Lawrence while I finished my undergraduate degree. Which I dropped out as a result of a number of issues during the Trump administration. Just how it became to live and exist, that was part of the reason why I dropped out. And so now I'm back trying to finish this, but we'll dive a little bit deeper into not having a degree, which is almost 40% of all people that have that student that do not have a degree. So we can dive in on that a little bit later. But yeah, that's essentially where I come from. Not born and raised, but essentially, definitely raised in the Midwest.

I appreciate that backstory and just that the point of your backstory having so much to do with the work that you currently do now. I feel like I always have known you as someone who's just very close, physically close and in proximity of where important policy stuff is happening. You had a stint in Kansas City being very close to the mayor's office. You're just always someone who's, like, you did that in Kansas, too. You are always someone wherever conversations around big, major policy changes happening, like, Romero is going to be there. There's no question.

So just like even though you're just hanging out in little ol’ Lawrence, Kansas college town, just like where major change activity is happening and that just seems to be so very true still in this moment where it seems like you had, like I don't know the timeline, but you were posting clips of, you're on MSNBC. You're on major Latinx news platforms, corresponding specifically around student debt cancellation, and that there's some major talking points that I think part of your current role with your organization.

But just like, generally, I've seen your narrative being kind of what has been the key piece that you're bringing to some of those big media correspondence pieces. And so I think knowing your background and knowing your relationship with the Midwest and knowing some of the other social identities you hold, you're not just someone who factually knows the importance of student debt cancellation. You're someone who anecdotally, materially, and holistically knows the importance of student debt cancellation.

So I am just so happy to have you here to be the person to kind of create connections between how does this materially affect people? So I'm hoping you can kind of help me lay out a comprehensive landscape of kind of like, where did and how did the big talking point of student debt cancellation kind of emerge? Right. Like, I think in the past, let's put a two or three year marker on it, maybe, ish, I feel like that's really been a bigger deal than it ever has, but let's flesh that out. And then, why is it such a hot topic in this moment? And what have been some of the key moves in maybe the past six months to a year that are moving us in a direction towards the ultimate goal of student debt cancellation? Right. Like, what is the landscape and what are some of the context, so that we kind of have a foundation to go off of as we talk about the impacts on certain populations?

Absolutely. I guess just to give even further background on my own work.


I primarily worked in policy and communication spaces after leaving the University of Kansas. So like you mentioned, I worked for the mayor. There I was doing policy, local policy advising. Then before that, I worked at the Democratic National Convention Committee doing press work at the national level. I worked on Congress, and now I work for this advocacy organization called Young Invincibles, which does advocacy for young adults 18 to 34, focused on our economic prospects, ensuring that we're getting the money that we should be getting. Whether that's through tax returns or that policies are working for us, that the minimum wage is raised or that child care is an option.

We primarily focus on four issues. That's higher education, which is how we got involved with student debt, and I'll dive into the context of that. Then we have healthcare, access and affordability. That's still today, health care is attached to your employment, and that can be a big issue for people for a multitude of reasons. And we have civic engagement, so voting rights and democracy, which is really important these days. We're at least at the forefront of issues that we're discussing. And then we have the economy and workforce development. So those are essentially what we focus with a lens of young adults. How does this work for young adults?

So I'm very fortunate that I came across Young Invincibles and got to work with them on works that align with my own beliefs and the own issues that I face in my life. That doesn't happen often. That's rare. And I'm very happy and fortunate that I get to work with them. I'm the press secretary right now, so I manage a lot of the messaging and communications around all of those issues that I mentioned, at a national level.

And when it comes to student debt, the issue has been around. People have had to pay for college for years, for decades. It used to not be that way. College has exploded exponentially in terms of the tuition costs, and there are a number of reasons for why that is. But college used to be free back in the 20th century. But after segregation and people of color and more marginalized communities, particularly Black folks in this country, were allowed to attend higher education institutions and you saw a wave of simple refusal to allow them to enter campus for class, that movement eventually got codified into making higher education more expensive so that only people that could afford it could actually enter. So the barriers to maintain people that had been red lined into poverty and concentrated into racialized areas of poverty around this country. The new barriers that were being set up since segregation was no longer legal, where other items that were based on monetary barriers and so they took away—university became more expensive—they took away.

You had the Reagan administration coming in and pushing this, thinking of lifting yourself up by your bootstraps, which is essentially something that has been thoroughly deconstructed and dismissed in our current era, for obvious reasons. And the discourse that's happening today in the country, which we rightly realize now, is incorrect because it's not fair. The world isn't fair. Things aren't just and equal. People have a legacy of discrimination and barriers to overcome, which is why we have such huge gaps in wealth and equality and access to education and health care and jobs.

You can just look at any sector of the economy and you see those disparities very much present because they're the legacy of those discriminatory laws that we used to have. So now if we step back a little bit to talk about the rising cost of college through the 20th century and you fast forward to today, what we've seen is that the state funding that used to be there, is no longer there. A lot of that higher education was defunded during the Reagan administration, and the Reagan administration did defund a lot of that higher education as well, turning many grants into loans, essentially creating what we now have as a student aid in the form of Parent Plus loans, individual subsidized and unsubsidized loans. All of those structures emanated from that period. And so now you had a system that had been introduced, designed as a barrier so less folks would be able to access higher education. And not equally just any folks, but people that were formerly not allowed to access it.

So that's one aspect. And then universities, colleges and universities did not keep up with the budgetary hole that was created when the federal and the state entities began to defund what they formally gave to higher education to keep it at such a low cost. Which is why people used to say, oh, I could keep a high school job or a job that I got with a high school degree and pay my way through college. That's what they referenced. That's what they mean. The college was so affordable then that you were able to do this. Yes, there's inflation, but inflation doesn't account for the fact that college has been systematically rearranged so that it costs money for you to go. And if you just take back, step back, taking that into consideration, how messed up is that? That now, because of some decisions some folks made in the 20th century, now you have to keep three jobs and you're still struggling to pay for maybe twelve credit hours, or you can't even afford college altogether because you can't afford the cost of living that is exploding right now. But then you also have to contend with the legacy of essentially racist policies. So it's fucked up all around. That's the situation. That's why college is so expensive now.

People still had to attend college, so they took out loans. Like many of us were told to go to college. We're told to go to college. But if you didn't have financial support from your parents or were wealthy, you had to get loans. Unless you were fortunate enough to have had an upbringing that fostered an environment where you could get scholarships and have the ability to study and focus and get a good ACT score because you don't have to worry about your electricity being on while you study. And sometimes you did and you were exceptional and overcame that, but you shouldn't have to be exceptional just to have access to higher education.

So that's why the issue started really gaining traction about ten years ago with the student center, the Student Borrower Protection Center and the Student Debt Crisis Center. Those were entities that were created back then about ten years ago because they recognized that that was such a huge issue that they needed a dedicated organization to fight for this. Now, it didn't have as much traction, it wasn't discussed broadly in the way that you have it today. What really set that issue in motion from the spaces in which this was really important to them to now at the forefront of the conversation and the news everywhere you go, essentially a headline issue. The reason why that happened was because of the pandemic. And that's a lot of the rationale from the administration. It is that because of everything that has transpired, the inequities that were highlighted during the pandemic and then exacerbated as a result of the economic downturn and the over 1 million deaths that we had in the country, initially because of the mismanagement and then second because of a runaway effect and being able to control a global pandemic. That is a lot of the rationale behind the administration at the courts and publicly with other organizations that are youth advocacy and higher education advocacy. The crux of our argument has been because of the pandemic and the damage that it has brought on not only the global economy, but here at home and just across all sectors of life, we need to cancel student debt because people's pockets have just been decimated.

And now we can't really deny that there's problems of inequity when the pandemic just made it so obvious across the board. So that's why we have this moment that the movement that has been carried for years by single issue organizations primarily focused on cancellation have banded together with the rest of the coalition, which are essentially any and all organizations that care about higher education or that prioritize issues for young adults. And not all students are young adults, not all, but that's an issue that's overwhelmingly represented in that space and so it is pushed by that. But there are nontraditional students that are older, of course, that have debt, there's parents that have debt, that their children are now in college and they are also taking out debt. So you have generational debt in this country instead of wealth which should be being built.

But that's essentially how we got to the spot where now everybody's talking about student debt, is because we created a movement in concert with the folks that had already been doing the work and we reached the point of critical mass where we were able to coordinate folks and get them all to sing the same song. And we got an administration that was open to doing this. It's only fair to say that the Trump administration did initiate the pause, but in comparison to the horrid items that came out of that administration, like, really hard to give anybody credit in there. But it did start with the Trump administration and there has been continued and then cancellation happened under Biden who was heavily pressured during his campaign. And yeah, it was all hands on deck and that's why we're here.

I think that context is super helpful. And if you ask anybody who does any kind of work in alignment with me, I love adding context to things because I think I had joked, slash not joked with you before we hit the record button that I think a lot of credit is given to Elizabeth Warren during the presidential campaigning, who was someone, and probably Bernie Sanders, as well, as two folks who were kind of naming that as part of their platform issues during that presidential campaign. But that if you look past the smoke and mirrors of two key political candidates, that there's folks on the ground who have been doing major work, which is usually the case with any kind of major movement stuff that improves those folks' material conditions.

So I think that in a lot of the history you just named, like I was super not even aware of in this moment. So I think just like naming that this has been a long time coming and that a lot of the systems in place, right. Financial aid, higher education funding, the removal of funding that's all compounding and creating the squeeze that with the addition of the pandemic has just made it kind of fall out from underneath itself and reveal that certain systems for funding folks to go to college were not sustainable.

Right. Like, the amounts of loans, you know, that's a major talking point, right, is that the loans that 18 year olds are taking out to go to college is, like, predatory and just astronomical and would not be fathomable in a case where they were trying to take out a loan for a house or a car or literally anything else. We would not receive the kind of money we receive for any other circumstance. But it's apparently totally fine because of this continued false narrative that, well, going to school means you're going to get a return on the debt you take out now. But as we're seeing, wages are not increasing to then match the promise of going to college. So then you've got folks who, you know, college students are generally taking out more debt, but then also working multiple jobs. I think I saw a stat recently that a larger percentage of folks currently enrolled in college are parents. So then you've got the additional cost of child, you know, child rearing and child care. There's all these additional costs. So the cost of life is increasing and the money coming into the person living that life is not.

No, it's very true. It's so hard. College is hard already. But if you have any other additional identities or responsibilities, it just becomes even more difficult to where other problems in society and the economy are brought into the conversation because they haven't been fixed. So like child care, for example, or like mental health services on campus. So if you have any sort of issues there, you're also on a deal and they have to come across that system. But I want to go back to talk about Warren and Sanders.

I think the reason why it was so salient as an issue and it seemed like you came from them is because they were the ones that paid attention to people like the grassroots and on the ground and were like, what's an issue that's important to you? What are people organizing around? They recognized and their campaigns recognized early on that, that was an issue that was very much being discussed on the ground. And so they elevated that. And I think that's also benefit to highlight that, had it not been for candidates like that, that infused that into the national conversation at a moment of like a presidential election, that would not have advanced the issue in the way that it has arrived now. I think it all is like little stones that help it get bigger. But I don't think without Bernie or Warren elevating that into the debate stage, it would have taken longer.

That makes sense.

Yeah, so it definitely and then that then pushed President Biden to make a promise that we utilized a lot before. Pre cancellation plan announcement, we were railing on the president about the fact that he made a promise to cancel some debt. He said $10,000, perhaps more. But there was a moment there where us getting an extension on the repayment pause was like what we thought we were only going to get. We were thinking the president wasn’t going to cancel, like, any debt at all, even though he promised, that was a real possibility.

And had it not been for that applied pressure from the grassroots all around, whether it be on TV or behind closed doors. Had we stayed quiet, he would have gleefully just left it alone and not have to deal with lawsuits that are now ongoing. True.

Well, because at this point, the repayment pause has been extended. How many times are we up to like five or six times. I lost track.

I think we're at eight. But it also begs the question is, like, if you haven't gotten this money in a long time, that also brings up another question from principle. It's like, should the federal government be making money on the backs of students. And who are those students? Primarily students of low income that aren't getting loans in the first place because they don't have money. That's something else. That's something we're gearing up for as this fight continues in terms of higher education and making it more accessible. One of those is going to have to be a conversation around interest. Because interest is crazy and extra money that the government is making on their backs, it's not just cancelation. It's also interest and the supports that they provide. But yeah, we can go around all day, but I'll stop there for us, so you can direct the conversation.

I'm sensing a spin off podcast where maybe I can just check in with you every once in a while about the status of higher education and we'll just talk that to death, because that feels really cathartic, because yes to everything you're freaking saying. Because that's where we're at.

Yes on the backs of students just feels like a really key note from that, that bit, for sure. And which students, which I feel like was a big piece of what I wanted to chat about with you too, is just thinking about, you know, I could rattle off the data and I won't because I can't retain numbers like that, but I'll put it in the show notes later. But just like looking at what I've done research and homework on, even if I didn't do the homework, none of this is surprising and I could make this as an educated guess. Right?

We generally know that queer and trans students or queer and trans borrowers, especially queer and trans borrowers of color, have a disproportionate debt burden, generally thousands, maybe tens of thousands more dollars in debt which tying that with other compounding factors that we can generally find data to cite for about how more complex and how much more difficult it is for marginalized students, especially to, persevere is the word I'm sure the higher ed elites would want me to use, through college, that they're going to be going to school for a longer amount of time. And they may also have life factors that, you know, I feel like you can literally speak personally to, because you mentioned it, may impact their their ability to maintain through college to a degree or having to take a gap semester or a gap year for a variety of reasons.

We know that students of color generally have more family responsibilities that's going to impact their ability to commit the same amount of attention and work in their coursework as their white counterparts. Thinking about money, right. There's narratives of students taking out loans to then give that money back to family because it's the first time in their life they've had access to that kind of money as a low S.E.S. person. Right. There's all these factors, all these factors, that then impact marginalized communities in such a way.

And so I'm kind of wanting to go down this pathway of just thinking about, with broad-based student loan cancellation and everything that we know about all these other compounding factors through COVID, right? What does it mean? And it feels like such an obvious answer. What is the value of canceling student debt for one of those populations? The answer is obvious. But just like what's the depth of that, right? What is the deeply rooted impact of that as we look at it from the perspective of prioritizing and centering relieving debt for marginalized communities?

I think it's a big deal because for many people that's like life and death, right? Think about the reasons why, you just described the high bar of attending higher education in this country. You have marginalized identities, but also if you're queer or trans, and that just means your needs are going to be different in college. And because college wasn't built for folks that weren’t rich and came from really privileged backgrounds where the core identities were those upheld by society in the 20th century, which was heterosexual, straight, white, Christian family and anything that centers that, then college is going to be difficult for you. Because if they're, one, you have the social aspects and the social barriers that come with that of all the either discrimination or socially challenging situations that will come with just riding the bus on campus. If you hold any of those ideas, identities or being in class, which is like, you're not bothering anyone, you're just trying to get your degree, that's one.

And then the financial aspect, it's paying for school is one thing. If you got disowned and you got to college and that's the first time you're coming out, or you are out and you are in college, you likely don't have that support. And if you still are cool with your parents, they probably and they don't accept you, and all that comes with that with coming out. And you have a challenge if you're still cool with them, they might even be bothered that you're even asking them for money because you're already on thin ice with them potentially unless you were blessed with good parents.

But no, I'm serious. So I feel like because once you get there, the barriers are so high that your mental health first and foremost will decline. And there aren't any mental health—it's rare when campuses have properly funded and appropriate mental health services that will help you. And it's not like all of those barriers that you faced in the theoretical bus or the classroom are going to be any different at the campus clinic. So the barriers are high. You don't have a family, potentially, to go to. So that's just for attending and paying for college to everyday living on campus and needing money. And then the barriers keeping you from a degree if you don't graduate or if you have housing or food insecurity, which is very common, that debt is heavier for folks that are queer or trans.

But $20,000, for example. If you have debt, but you don't have an overwhelming amount, that to you can be life changing. Because then that could mean that your credit score might go up or that you can focus on other items that are immediate for survival or just like the general stress, it could also mean that maybe you can take out as messed up as it sounds, maybe you can take out loans and finish your degree because you didn't have to drop out. It may come as a gift in many different ways. It could extend your life in the sense that your degree life, finishing your degree, it could mean that you can finally get access to your transcripts because you haven't paid and college has been withholding hostage your transcripts, you can't even prove that you attended school. There are a number of ways in which schools can, administration at least, can make it very difficult for you to live your life even if you went to college, if you have debt.

So this forgiveness, depending on how much debt you have, for those that have less than $20,000, where this means they no longer have debt, this is life changing. For those where this is being decreased, whether it's being slashed in half or takes out a third, it makes it more attainable to pay that off and more hopeful for the future that there might be more cancellations down the line that will improve your financial situation. But because, I guess the point here I'm trying to reiterate is that, because the everyday living and the barriers to even get there, and the support that isn't there, makes it such heavier debt, and therefore the relief is even more relief, both ends are more intense and I wish that wasn't the way society works. It's just what life has dealt us and so yeah, it would be life changing for many people.

I know for me in terms of my family history, I just have a tough economic and immigration, like, cards that were dealt, but my mom is there for support. Like she didn't disown me, she was disapproved, so at least she's there for emotional support. But there are parents that just don't show up at all and they have money. I will be way more mad, not to compare like struggles here, but yeah, but that does happen for some. I have friends that are housing insecure and didn't finish their degree on their last year and this may mean that they can go back to school. That's a big deal. That means picking up on your life where you left off after like, personal disappointment.

A lot of the issue here is that because all of this is going on, no one takes the time, and because there's no appropriate mental health services to go through the process, through the process of processing what has transpired and what has happened to you often, many times fear and anyone that's going, youth that's going through a hard time, or anyone really. They all internalize that failure as if it is definitive of their being or that it's a reflection of either their work ethic or who they are as a human person. And that's just not it. For the reasons that we've explained on this podcast, a lot of those things are exterior and a lot of the internal stuff is like just us dealing with the exterior circumstances that we find ourselves in because again, this is just like the multiverse that we land within.

So yeah, it is tough out here but most of it, just because you have debt or you dropped out doesn't mean that you're any less, like it's just a personal disappointment. Shit happens. But there's still of love and support and at home and a meal, regardless.

A lot of that checks out. And what I know to be true in working directly with college students, LGBTQ college students specifically in my day job, right, is that oftentimes the requests I get of students who are like, I'm in a financially complicated situation. It's not even necessarily that their tuition bill is not covered. They have somehow figured that out and it's probably because of student loans and that's going to be a kickback later that's going to suck in a different way. But their immediate moment and the immediate circumstance is I can't pay my rent, I can't purchase groceries, I've got other expenses, right? And there's not always readily available funding. Certainly I think about this in a really complicated way. You don't have access to just kind of getting micro grants in the way that you have access as a college student. And I wish that that was a more ubiquitous existence that we lived in where, you need the funding? You're not going to have to go to the place that's going to make you spend 99% interest to get it cash forwarded, right? But in college there are circumstances where you might be able to access the money and that's been the case with a lot of students.

I've also been in situations where a student has reached out to kind of inquire about what other types of financial aid might exist because their parents have financially cut them off, right? Maybe hasn't straight up said like, we're not going to associate with you, but we're no longer going to pay for your college because of your queer identity. But then the response from the financial aid office or whoever is responding about the request to the student, is saying, well, here's some option, and then they just copy over a canned response. That also includes, well, you could consider a parent plus loan. It's like, did you hear the part where the parents are no longer financially supporting the students? So I think there's also these processes that create extra labor for queer and trans students on campus, marginalized students broadly on campus.

That brings me to a point that I definitely wanted to hear more from you about this idea of means based, you having to prove that you need the funding in some kind of bleeding heart way that says, here's my horror story of the life that I'm living. Can you please feel sorry for me and give me money? That's how I feel about it anyway. But there's probably a more apt answer that you could give because I know you've spoken on that before too, about just kind of the, needing to prove the need or needing to prove that you're at a place that's dire enough to justify any kind of forgiveness. And I think that shows up with this recent iteration of the forgiveness that we're seeing is that there's kind of a catch all of $10,000 and also if you were at any point in time a Pell grant recipient which is based on some socio economic factors, that you're eligible for $20,000 in forgiveness. Right?

So then there's already within this most recent wave of cancellation that we're seeing the difference between do you really need this versus oh, you truly need this, and that's going to maybe make things more complicated too. I don't know. What do you think?

I think, no, I agree in the sense that the way things are traditionally structured in higher education, when it's time to ask for any sort of money, because you would have to put out your horror story out there and hope that they will give you money. It’s dehumanizing, it's retraumatizing for a lot of folks. You really need to figure out a different way of learning about people's experience without having them go through such a bad experience again.

But I think two things. First, I think it really draws attention to the fact that there is a gap of need when it comes to financial resources, especially emergency financial resources for young adults in this country that needs to be filled. If you, that there is a direct government response that exists and that is required and that we should push for, which is the availability of, as you mentioned, micro loans for anybody through an economic process similar to the one that you would go through. Ideally more simplified, but not one that is under the structures of admissions to colleges where you have to write an essay about everything that happened to you, but rather about bring your bill that you can't pay or pay stub or just fill out this form.

But, there aren’t institutions that do that right now or at least still do it. And so you're only left with options such as just predatory lenders like speedy cash loans, what have you, this like payday lenders that are strategically placed. There are rules behind that. There's zoning that allows for particular businesses to be placed in particular locations and there is a higher concentration of payday lenders in low income areas, racialized areas, or near college campuses like that, where, there is this environment that there are no options available. But so interesting how there's like five payday lenders all around. How come those are the only options, and there are plenty of those, and you can pick and choose? That's by design. There's zoning laws that go into that.

Then there is federal policy that goes into that, that creates this void that is being filled by predatory lenders. And so that's a gap and a shortcoming and something we should demand and something we're working on in the longer term, at Young Invincibles, which is to restructure that balance. One of, to talk about some of the people that are leading the way in the Senate that have listened to the grassroots, but also analyzed this in house, people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They're talking about the Postal Office becoming, doubling as a bank because there's always a Postal Office that is a source of jobs for local communities where they are placed. They're a good model, they're not for profit.

And if we were able to retrofit them through legislation to then provide micro loans at low interest rates, then you would have a scenario where, say, for example, a queer college student on campus needs a loan and they don't have to get essentially a rabbit hole of a loan in a payday lender that will then further get them depressed because they’re now stuck with this loan. On top of all of this stuff, they create another problem and more stress that it becomes not just like a barrier, but an actual dragging you down financially, which is so messed up that we allow it to happen. So that's one aspect that needs to be addressed because just the way it's set up is so messed up. And it's by design to make people money, people that are elected, that take money from predatory lenders that will not advance legislation of this kind. Which is why we need cleaner government. Which brings us to civic engagement. But that's another conversation we can have.

Now when we're talking about means testing. One of our biggest concerns had been a really long application where people were having to submit documents and all this stuff. And we know that already, by design, people are busy, people are depressed, they have to go to work. They don't have the time to just be looking for another document. And they know that. Which is why when there's new testing attached to it, oftentimes it's to water down the amount of people that they're going to help. So we really pushed hard for something that wasn't asking for any of that. That was as automatic as possible. We were asking, at Young Invincibles, for $50k in forgiveness, no means testing, just let it be automatic. That's not what we got. We got 10, $20k, and we got a means testing measure, but it was better than we thought.

So the application itself, I think we had like 40 million people sign up within the first three weeks of the opening of the application because it was a simple, in my experience, it's one of the most simple applications I have seen, which is just like what's your name? I think it was like six questions and then you submitted and then you were in the system.

It was almost like mistrustingly simple. Am I on the right website? Did I get hacked? Yes.

No. It's so true. But that was essentially the compromise. It's like a form but like something more water, something more simple. But then of course we can't have a good thing. So then now we have the lawsuits.

So, means testing will always leak people out because of the real life situations that people have. Just like in the same way reimbursement might have some drop off because who wants to send but they make you do extra work so you don't take that money from them. So it's the same concept. But yeah, at least where we are right now, if you didn't sign up, if you weren't one of those 40 million that filled out the application, we'll have to wait to see what happens with the lawsuits. It's basically on pause right now. We have a repayment pause as well. So you shouldn't be paying student payments right now, student loan payments right now.

If somebody comes to you asking you, hey, it's time to pay your student loans, that's a scam. You're getting any communications from, quote unquote, like your servicer, make sure it is in fact, like, coming from a dot gov domain and not some sort of third party that's trying to take your money, things like that, because scammers will take advantage of the confusion during this period. But we're essentially just waiting to see what the courts are going to say.

The coalition is organizing to essentially make the case in public opinion that why we're doing this, why it's urgent to have relief, not only because it's a huge problem, but because of the pandemic and then the fact that there are predatory, like lenders out here and scammers that are trying to take advantage of students.

So we're having oral arguments here in January at the Supreme Court that will be a press push and a digital push from the grassroots folks and then the decisions will be handed out sometime in June. So we have between now and June to essentially raise attention to the issue and then hope that we'll get a good result at the Supreme Court and that will be determined. If not, then we'll have to find out other ways to pressure the President to do something about all of these issues are still very much live.

And what is the basis, in a nutshell, of the lawsuit, right? Like what is the opposition's big deal for pushing the lawsuit to say that the debt should not be forgiven?

So there were a number of arguments that were raised, essentially throwing pasta at the wall to see what sticks.

Typical tactic.

Yes, that's a lot of what you saw at the beginning, where you had five different lawsuits across a number of states, the vast majority, if not all of them, were initiated by Republican elected officials, that are Attorney General in those states, that bandits together. There has been the inclination from the beginning to frame this and create this narrative. This is helping the wealthiest people and that we shouldn't be paying for people's basket weaving degrees. So there's this misinformation campaign that's originating from the same politically motivated actors. They're essentially just trying to keep this from happening, either because they don't like the president and they see this as a victory for him, or because they are paid and funded by the interests that would not benefit from this. Because there are people that won't benefit financially from cancellation. That would be the student loan debt lenders that oversee your debt, that get a cut from those payments. They're not very happy. But why are you in the business?

Okay, first of all, you're in the business of making money off of people in debt in a capitalist system that is exploiting folks and so be mad, stay mad like that. You're not making money from people. That's some of the lawsuits, of people that are legitimately claiming, you're costing me money, even as nakedly, horrible as that is for you to get up in court and be like, all these people are getting forgiveness and relieve at a time that they need it, but they're messing with my money. So that’s some lawsuits, but then it's funny because some of those same folks got PPP loans, but then we're also forgiven. And the PPP loans were astronomical. Some people got like over a million dollars. Several were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to the wealthiest in our country. Because for you to get a PPP loan, you have to have been a business owner, so you already had to have had some sort of money or you are secured in your life now.

Now $10k, $20k, they're crying about that? It's just so messed up all around. So that's some of the lawsuits, they are politically motivated. They don't want to give the President the win. Some of them have legitimate, quote unquote legitimate, but fucked up claims as to why they're losing money based on this. And then other ones just straight up don't want to give people like, they're just motivated by whatever, that’s between them and their deity. But they're clearly very much not happy about people getting the relief that they need.

And so a lot of these lawsuits early on were tossed out by the judges because they're like, you have no claim, you're just complaining. Other ones that did and got elevated to the Supreme Court will be decided. And it's scary because the Supreme Court has a supermajority for conservatives, but we don't necessarily know how they will vote on this particular issue because this issue hasn't been around in the same way that abortion has been around or other constitutional questions. So it might be more of a gray area. We might get a surprise. So we'll see.

It's not, like, universally dismissed as a loss because the facts of the case could be such that the Supreme Court Justices might side with us because some of them are just so outrageous in their claims. Also because the President does have the authority, as it's written in law, to make these sort of budgetary decisions. They're of a greater number, which I think is what they're arguing. But the government works with big numbers all the time, so it's like splitting hairs. So we'll see how this aligns with us. We will be making the case so that all of these justices are reading these reports and they're seeing the people organized so that they can think twice, but we just do not know at this time.

Which I think sounds par for the course. Just kind of a lot of wonder and two things, right? I think that helps contextualize the date for the most recent pushback of the repayment pause being seemingly along the timeline of when these, uh, words are hard. When the lawsuits would be playing out and just kind of waiting it out to see what the outcomes of that all will be. So that makes sense for when the new date for repayment pause has happened.

And then what I'm also thinking about as far as some of the, just outrageous, talking points that the opposition has. You know, not even elected officials, but the average person. You can pull up any Twitter thread where student loan debt cancellation is a topic and there's going to be 15 people trolling about what about my mortgage? Or what about my other debt, the other types of debt that are out there. And I'm thinking about this. I don't know if they're necessarily like an organization per se, but are you familiar with the Debt Collective?


Yeah. So that's definitely one of the kind of factions of grassroots work. I know they've organized several types of protests in DC. There's a book that was published through I can't remember off the top of my head now, if it was Haymarket or Verso, but it kind of maps out this idea that being a Borrower, right? Being someone who's in debt. Being a borrower and someone who has taken out massive loans is kind of this shared identity or shared experience of a lot of people, whether it's student loan debt, medical debt or other types of predatory debt. Because any instance in which, based on everything we just talked about, where folks need money, right, you have all of these payday loan type places with massive interest rates. There's so much possibility, credit card debt, there's so much possibility for folks to have astronomical debt because of economic circumstances.

And what I'm thinking of when the Debt Collective has kind of mapped out this idea that that is a place to mobilize and activate around, our shared burden of predatory debt and how it is unsustainable and how it shouldn't be that you have to take out massive amounts of debt of any kind to make ends meet and to have your material needs met. That is a place for activism and direct action and movement. And how a lot of that protest work, I think has also in combination with certain types of political lobbying tactics or really being in the ear of elected officials, all of this all of these are tools and tactics to kind of get this dialectical relationship between policymakers and decision makers with folks who are existing in their average daily lives and are not having their material needs met.

Thinking about how powerful it could be probably wouldn't go very far, but how powerful it could be to respond to someone who says, well, what about my mortgage? To be able to say you're actually right if your interest rate on your mortgage is actually tearing you apart financially because you don't have a job that's paying you a living wage to be able to pay your mortgage. Actually, we should be in mutual conversation to talk about the fact that we're both screwed. But it's been so segmented in well, why would you get your debt canceled but I'm going to be sitting here with my debt, right?

There's certain circumstances where I think, like how can the narrative continue to expand where we can say yes, if you have an obscene amount of medical debt because our medical industrial complex and our medical systems are also screwing people over because that system is unsustainable, then we should actually be in tandem conversation. It's not this or that, but I don't think that that's where the conversation has advanced. Probably to your point, because this is a relatively infant conversation compared to certain decades long movement work. But it's technically all one conversation and I'm curious what it's going to take to kind of get, you know, there's certain people you're never going to convince.

But, like, how can this be a conversation around you know, there's talking points that relate to broad based student debt cancellation that will carry over and should carry over into conversations around credit card debt and medical debt and any kind of debt that shouldn't actually have been accrued because people should have had their needs met and things like food and shelter paid for instead of having to swipe a credit card with an astronomical interest rate.

You hit the nail on the head in terms of how come, you were illustrating how we, or posing a question as to how we can basically continue this momentum going, and expand it to create a more powerful movement. And I think that is so true in terms of organizing. Like that really is where all of these things come from.

When I post a question of this or yeah, when I was asking the question and saying that the predatory lenders, for example, were an area, a gap that needed to be filled by good government policy, that doesn't happen unless there's organizing around that, unless there's pressure being exerted to the people that might run for that position. Or if you're in that movement and you feel like you have a chance to run and make that case so that then even if you lose, you make the person that stays behind think twice or think and know that that's an issue that is important to the community right now.

Something that we are seeing, so interesting that you mentioned that, sort of a carryover is a now renewed focus on medical debt. The Kaiser Health News organization which is just like a nonprofit arm of Kaiser Health that focuses on just healthcare news. The reporters that work there have been doing a series on medical debt and how the holders of medical debt are actually people that are under their, in their 30s or under. A lot of, like, young people that get debt because they didn't have insurance, because they thought they were healthy, because it's really expensive. And they have that debt with a hospital and then it stays with them well into their adulthood and how that can impact a number of situations.

But the perceived assumption is that medical debt is with older folks that have really chronic diseases or conditions that force them to buy really expensive medicine, which is a certain portion of it, but a lot of it is just young people that broke a leg or had an interaction with the healthcare system. And because those costs are astronomical, a lot of that is there.

So we do see that slowly shifting into that as this conversation is still going on. But now we're paying attention to, what other type of debt in our community is kind of, like, unfair? But you're absolutely right, all kinds of debt. And that would be a cross sectional area for solidarity and movement building, because you do get more with honey. So if we do respond to a troll with no, you're right, because they're true, now join us in this fight so that we can also help you with your mortgage. That's so true. That is more powerful.

If it's a landlord saying that their mortgage is too high and you're jacking up the rent for your tenants, I'm going to be less enthusiastic about saying you're right, but if someone owns the house but also the means, then yes, we can have that conversation about predatory loans. It doesn't matter. The loan is if you can't afford to live, then we're actually on the same page. But let's fight about it, I guess.

Absolutely. And I think those conversations will continue to evolve, certainly in the spaces that I'm in. But it is good to have these conversations with everybody across the country because that’s how ideas bubble up. So I'm really glad we had this conversation. I will be thinking that over.

You kind of give a preview already of what's up in the next about six months or so. So we're going to see this lawsuit play out and we're going to hear all kinds of talking points and it's going to be a political frenzy. That's going to happen for sure. aAs far as either continued advocacy work, different types of initiatives, to ultimately kind of to funnel us towards a wrap up. What is next in terms of broad based student loan cancellation and what are any other final thoughts you have to really kind of take us towards the end here?

Yeah, I think the focus for borrowers right now is to primarily ensure that they don't fall for any scams, that they are paying attention to the fact that there's a payment pause. So you don't have to be paying your student debt.

For federal loans, specifically.

For federal loans.

Us folks with private loans are still screwed.

Private loans unfortunately were not something that was included, that was included. But for the longer term outlook here, it would be a renewed push, ideally once we get the Supreme Court to decide, a renewed push on more debt cancellation because there's still a lot of like millions of borrowers that have over $20k. So that's one side of the push. The other one is to handle interest and to have a conversation about interest, do something there legislatively or through executive action and to make college more affordable and hospitable once you're there.

So one of our big pushes spring will be mental health on college campuses. It's going to be one like to actually be affordable and accessible and something that allows people with the proper training to ensure that when people go there they don't get revictimized or have to go through a horrible experience here. So that's one of the major ones because we have to push for both of those things at once. There are still people on campuses that are taking out loans that are living with those conditions, that are housing insecure.

So we're going to focus on the loans and the structures of the loans but we're also going to focus on access and affordability and hospitability of being on a college campus. So we're going to be focusing on those at the federal and at the state level.

Stunning. Yeah, that sounds like such a necessary, because essentially you're addressing the root, but also not ignoring some of the symptomatic pieces that can come with that or that can interplay with that extensively. Because it's not uncommon for students on college campuses to have a six to eight week wait time to get an appointment, even though their tuition dollars cover a certain number of appointments. So that's really good to hear, and also something that I feel like we should put a pin in and chat about sometime in the Spring. That would be a really nice follow up and bookend to where we are now. Amazing. All right, dear friend, is there anything else that you feel like you need to add for the good of this conversation?

Follow us at Young Invincibles on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and TikTok. But otherwise you can find me there. I'm tagged, but it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.


Our inbox is open for all of your insight, feedback, questions, boycotts, memes and other forms of written correspondence. You can contact us at lastbite@sgdinstitute.org. This podcast is made possible by the labor and commitment of the Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity staff. Particular shout out to Justin, Andy and Nick for all of your support with editing, promotion and production. Our amazing and queer as fuck cover art was designed by Adrienne McCormick.