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Organizing inside and out on #CancelStudentDebt
An activist for student loan forgiveness shares her thoughts on how relief was won for millions
Three weeks ago, President Biden took unprecedented action to cancel thousands of dollars of federal student loan debt for millions of Americans. It was a move that activists had long called for, but many thought would never happen. Major progressive wins don’t happen often in Washington - but this was the result of several years of pushing and organizing both inside and outside the White House.
One organizer who dedicated hours of her life to the fight to #CancelStudentDebt was Melissa Byrne - a longtime activist and former Bernie Sanders staffer. We spoke with Melissa about what tactics were most effective and what other campaigners can learn from her experience.
Q&A with Melissa Byrne, #CancelStudentDebt
Campaigner: How’d you get your start in politics and advocacy?
Melissa Byrne: I joke around that some of my first memories are of Ronald Reagan running against Mondale/Ferraro and thinking it was cool that a woman was running for Vice President. I also remember my mom coming home from work from a new job and saying she had health insurance for the first time because she got a job that had a union. So I have been aware of politics since I was like four or five years old. When Dukakis ran for President, I remember having my grandmother drive me to the local party headquarters to get a yard sign. So in fact, yard signs are a form of engagement. I just went on from there!
Campaigner: Flash forward to several weeks ago, and you had been organizing for student debt cancellation for several years. Something is finally going to happen. What did it feel like in that final week before and after President Biden’s historic announcement?
Melissa Byrne: The final week (before the President’s executive action) was such a mix of emotion, like the anticipation of Christmas Eve. I think I broke down on Monday night of that week and just ordered horrible junk food, it was a mess. (laughs) I felt like I had the whole press corps reaching out asking “what do you know, what have you heard?”
At that point, leak after leak of potential presidential actions were being reported. Some said it was gonna be this plan, others said it was gonna be that plan. At that, point you basically have done all the organizing work that you can do, but a decision still wasn’t public yet. We had to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. I was pretty confident that the President’s action to cancel student debt was going to be announced on that Wednesday, and we had a tentative plan for action at the White House within 24 hours of something being announced to celebrate and call for more. That week I was just a bundle of nerves.
Campaigner: I’m sure it was pure chaos. Knowing that there were major people in the White House and Democratic Party opposed to student debt forgiveness, getting the administration to take action on this required playing both an inside and outside game. How did you and others in the movement balance being both publicly critical and pushing and organizing and then privately persuasive?
Melissa Byrne: I worked for Bernie Sanders on both of his presidential races, and because of working on the second presidential race, I happened to watch a lot of President Biden’s speeches and town halls during the primary. That helped me really get a sense of how he campaigned, and one thing I learned about President Biden is that he's fine with critique. He's fine with the rough and tumble of politics. He always brags about being able to work with people he disagreed with. His whole thing was just basically like just don't be mean about it. Fight hard, but don't do personal attacks. That’s what I learned from observing how Biden operates, and I wanted to take that to winning student debt cancellation.
We recognized that we could fight hard on the issues, but I was very clear that we weren’t gonna attack Pres. Biden or the Vice President at all in this process. We also fought hard and were not going to give any quarter for compromise, and to quote a certain Senator, we don’t negotiate in public, lol. Behind the scenes, it was just literally like, “no, this is the demand.” We never changed the demand - which was full cancellation for everybody. No, means-testing, etc. But what came out of that was being able to have a really clear argument, a moral argument as to why we have to have the cancellation. This isn't just a consumer protection issue- it’s a family issue, it’s a justice issue, it’s a racial justice issue.
What I learned working for Bernie is that when people would come to me up upset with, with Bernie, if they were operating from a place of good faith, I would spend as long as I needed to on the phone with 'em and listen to them. But people who just hated Bernie and would attack him in a dishonest way, if they came into me upset, I’d be less willing to talk to them.
That kind of showed me that a big part of this is that you need to be able to build relationships with staff. I knew the White House staff were there because they wanted do good things for America. If they wanted to make money, they could go work for like any company in Silicon Valley. There are a lot of places for talented people to work, but these staffers are there, especially post-COVID, post-Trump, because they want to solve problems and do good things for the country. If you're just out there attacking their boss every day in ways that aren't fair, why would someone want to work with you to figure out how to solve a problem? My approach was that as long as they were acting in good faith, then I could act in good faith and we could work together. For me, that sign of good faith was the student loan repayment pause continuing to be extended. That made it easy to do the work.
Campaigner: That makes a lot of sense. Tactically speaking, what were some of the most effective things to help persuade key folks on the issue. Was it polling and research, was it phone banks or direct action, press?
Melissa Byrne: I think the most important thing was that in March of 2020, everyone was able to get together and to demand a pause on student loan payments.
I want to claim that all the organizing work I did was super effective because of course it was, but the pause in student loan payments is what gave us leverage to get the eventual win.
When I was in college, I was told a story about how there was a parking lot on campus that used to be a grassy field. For the longest time it was a green space and the university kept wanting to turn it into a parking lot. They would do these long-term viability studies and the parking lot construction kept getting blocked or stalled. Then one year, they proposed that it would just be temporary - that they would only use the field for parking for one year. Because they said it was going to be temporary, no one raised any objections. 10 years later it was still a parking lot. The moral of that story is that sometimes temporary change is the pathway to permanent change. The temporary student loan pause was a huge opportunity along these lines.
Even Trump could have turned the loans back on in September of 2020, but he didn't, because I think the Republican party knew that if loans were turned back on and people got ballots and bills on the same day, that would just lose them even more votes.
We got three years into the student loan repayment pause and every time it kept getting extended, more and more people got used to understanding that we don't have to have a system that works this way. That gave us the leverage for cancellation.
Campaigner: How does action on this issue provide a map for folks organizing on other issues to navigate their campaigns towards a win?
Melissa Byrne: A few things…We focused on a lot of public-facing “visual actions” that I think were important. There initially were no images in news reports to go along with stories about student debt cancellation. Maybe in some articles, there was like an old image of someone carrying a ball and a chain and an old image of someone dressed up. Those were cute, they didn't tell the story we wanted and they didn’t provide a call to action. So we started to have actions outside the White House with these oversized black and white signs, that eventually became the stock image accompanying news stories about student debt.
Those actions became monthly, and we set up outside the entrance of the White House where the staff entered the complex. Wisdom Cole of the NAACP and the team at MoveOn including Arvin Arlaigh, Mana Kharrazi, and Maralyn O’Brien were key partners in these actions. After succeeding at creating this imagery in the press, we wanted the decision makers and the White House staff see it and hear it. We hired a brass band, and I would get messages that people could hear the band inside the EEOB (Eisenhower Executive Office Building). Someone told me that the President heard the music one morning. Every month we changed the font and changed the colors of our signs, but the message remained the same. It wasn't about having a consistent brand, it was about having a consistent message.
What I would tell people planning direct actions is first, you don't need the iconic shot in front of the White House. You need the people who are in the White House to see you and understand what you are doing. Find ways to work with and push the staff. Those people understand and have respect for the role of advocates. They know how all of this works - just keep that in mind when planning your strategies.
Campaigner: Anything you want to add?
Melissa Byrne: Now because the cancellation move is “means-tested,” we have to do a full implementation campaign to make sure 45 million people get the information they need about it. We’re not a well-funded space. Here are places you can donate to support us:
Support We the 45M https://secure.actblue.com/donate/we-the-45m
Support The NAACP
These interviews are meant to highlight different voices from across the campaign ecosystem. The views expressed therein are not necessarily reflective of the views of Arena or FWIW Media 🇺🇸