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If you’re an OG subscriber to the newsletter, you probably figured out I am a sucker for vulnerability: taking the emotional risk of being open and honest about ourselves and our struggles in hopes of creating a deeper connection with one another.
It’s a great – and sometimes ghetto – experience. Last week, Shanna Bennett and I chatted about the struggle bus of paying for college and how Bennett is educating and empowering those who are buckling under the weight of a $1.7 trillion student loan debt crisis through her podcast and her brand that will soon be raising funds to pay off debts. In response to President Joe Biden’s student debt cancelation plan, I’m continuing the focus on those who have been liberating people from their student debts, mostly highlighting the work of the Debt Collective.
Known as the nation’s first debt union, the Debt Collective helps debtors realize their power through debt strikes, crowdfunding and other forms of activism. The union has wiped out more than $32 million of medical, student, payday loan, and probation debt in 10 years. Black women at Bennett College, a historically Black institution in North Carolina, can now provide for their growing families, finish their degrees and fulfill other dreams after the Debt Collective eliminated $1.7 million of the college’s student debt.
Looks like Black joy still reigns supreme even when a debt crisis weighs on the Black community in so many ways. Amplify the liberation by sharing this newsletter with your friends and family and let’s get free, y’all.
Breaking every chain of debt
For me, there are few spaces more powerful than one where Black women guide each other towards healing.
I witnessed this therapeutic energy recently at the Black Women Dream Space, a monthly virtual meetup of Black women debtors that Debt Collective members host. Held on the same day President Biden dropped his federal student loan debt cancellation plan, I figured Black Women Dream Space would be a place where Black women could talk about the obstacles of carrying school debt – and rightfully so. Black women hold the majority of student debt and struggle to pay it back due to the pay wage.
But the vibe wasn’t heavy with the traumas of debt. It was a rejuvenating, electrifying space where women hyped each other up while meditating and daydreaming about a debt-free future.
At one point during the meeting, it felt like a church praise break (minus the fainting and the worship director going ham on the piano) as one of the women shouted “It’s gone…It’s done… It is finished.”
Dr. Shamell Bell was one of the hosts. She’s the Debt Collective’s visionary escalator, meaning she pushes the conversation of student debt cancellation forward by using different practices of radical joy such as dance, affirmations and sound bowl healing.
“In this space, we come together in love,” Shamell told me. “I can offer a healing container. I set my intentions for everyone to come in the space with joy.”
Cultivating spaces of healing joy is in Shamell’s bloodline. She is a South Central Los Angeles girl who proudly claims her Southern activist roots. Her parents are from Mississippi and her uncle, Ward “Mack” McClendon, was a leader in New Orleans’ 9th Ward who founded a community center after Hurricane Katrina. Shamell’s activism is more artsy in nature since she spent her childhood performing in pageants. As a preteen, she helped her friends escape the violence in her neighborhood through her organization which provided Black and brown kids with different performance opportunities like dancing in music videos and documentaries.
Now 37, Shamell’s activism takes place in the streets and in the halls of academia. Thanks to a nudge by her mentor and University of California Los Angeles professor Robin D.G. Kelley, her dissertation was a text and film project highlighting the street dance movements of South Central Los Angeles. A community activist, street dance activist and a boy mom, Shamell is also a lecturer of somatic practices and global performance at Harvard University.
Dance has always been a healing modality of Black people. Shamell referenced an essay in Saidiya Hartman’s book “Scenes of Subjection,” which talked about how the enslaved would “steal away,” meaning escape to the woods at night to dance. Shamell discovered her method of liberating joy that she wanted to share with others.
“I felt the detrimental practices and policies that disadvantaged people like me and I just felt like I had to ‘steal away’ with dance,” Shamell said. “Dance was a literal life raft and it’s my way of becoming the lighthouse. I use dance as a way of shining a light to others and the ways that they should move through this society.”
Shamell joined forces with the Debt Collective after talking to Good Morning America about the stress of her college debt in February. During the Black Women Dream Space, Shamell shifts participants from a place of shame, grief and anger about their student debts to a place of peace, joy and enlightenment. But first she helps people realize they aren’t alone when it comes to having heavy emotions around student debt. During the beginning of the Dream Space, participants watched a documentary the Debt Collective made in collaboration with The Intercept called “Freedom Dreams”. The film highlighted the racists roots of the student debt crisis and how student loan debt affected the lives of Black women.
Shamell said Black women are lured into debt because education is advertised so heavily as the golden ticket to American dream. With college tuition cost increasing 31 percent between 2010 to 2020, student loan debt has become both a barrier for Black women who want to grow their families and purchase a home.
“We were corralled by the education system, TV, media, socialization, in to believing that, if we just worked hard and got educated, we would be able to advance. I’d be accepted. I’d finally be enough. And it didn’t matter how much I did or who I became, I was never enough,” Shamell said. “They let me climb the ladder only to pull it out from under me with student debt.”
The Dream Space gave Black Women the space to talk about their feelings regarding their debts. Shamell said some people cried as they broke through the taboo topic for the first time. Freeing those uncomfortable emotions and educating Black women about the systemic issues, predatory practices and policies that keep people in debt is an important part of student loan debt liberation.
“We’re trying to get to where we transcend the guilt and shame of debt,” Shamell said. “Then we get to this level of enlightenment where I can take something like debt and get everyone on the same frequency to say, ‘No, we don’t have any guilt and shame. We’re not going into that negative thinking. We’re getting to a place of enlightenment and bringing others in as a lighthouse.”
Once participants released their shame, Shamell guided the Black Women Dream Space through collective freedom dreaming. She asks participants to imagine their future where they aren’t shackled by debt. Shamell based the practice from Kelley’s book “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination,” which goes into why freedom dreaming is vital for liberation.
“Without new visions, we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down,” Kelley wrote. “We not only end up confused, rudderless and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.”
During the Dream Space, those new visions included a mother who imagined a life where her family can break free of the mindset of just getting by to get by. Another woman dreamed of a world where future generations didn’t have to deal with student loan debt.
What gives Shamell hope that these dreams will come true? The celebratory texts from people whose debts will be wiped clean because they will get enough relief from Biden’s cancellation plan. And the people who are still fighting for those who have way more debt to pay. The Debt Collective is continuing to push Biden to cancel all student loans and plans to go on a debt strike when the federal student loan repayment pause ends in January. Shamell pointed out that the government forgave the Payment Protection Program loans. So those with student debt deserve the same treatment, she says.
“Organize. Organize. Organize,” Shamell said. “The billionaires got tax breaks and all of these things, and no one fought that. So we can get similar relief. I think if we come together and point out the hypocrisy with people power, that’s where I have so much joy.”
Create your own freedom dream
This month’s Black Women Dream Space has not been scheduled. So keep an eye on the Debt Collective’s Instagram or sign up for the Debt Collective’s mailing list so you don’t miss the next event. If you want to go ahead and get your liberation juices flowing now, here are a few journal prompts from Dr. Bell to help you imagine your own freedom dream. When you’re ready get comfy, grab paper and a pen, practice a few square-breathes and let’s dream together!:
- When you think about your freedom dreams around student debt, what would you want to shift in society to heal?
- What are your post-apocalyptic skills and talents to make that shift/healing your vision?
- What senses emerged as you embodied healing and liberation?
Once you are done with the prompts above, complete this sentence: “My freedom dream is to shift _______ through _______.”
Here’s an example from Bell: “My freedom dream is to shift, through ease and flow, the detrimental practices and policies that disadvantage the poor, Black, indigenous people of color and queer folks in housing, education, employment and the environment. I do this through mothering, community organizing, artistic expression and education.”
My freedom dream is to shift your weekday stress into a weekend full of revitalizing joy =)! See ya next week!