Updates from the national headquarters at the Alliance for Youth Action
Pride is a Battleground
by Izzy Milch
Pride did not start as a fight for marriage equality, for corporately-made rainbow gear, or for LGBTQ+ representation in Disney movies, and it certainly cannot end with the acquisition of those things. Pride started as a riot against police brutality carried out on transgender and gender-nonconforming people of color. It started as a refusal to be policed out of existence. Pride started as a fight for the right of LGBTQ+ people to live, in public, without apology. That is a fight that is not yet won, and we cannot win it alone.
Recent research has shown that around 5% of young people in the United States identify as transgender or nonbinary. The numbers for the general population are even smaller, at approximately 1.6%. This tiny minority of Americans is being directly targeted by people, groups, and institutions with massive amounts of power and money. In 2022 alone, more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in legislatures across the country. In Montana, where I live and work, it is now illegal for trans youth to play on sports teams that align with their gender identity, and a law barring trans people from access to accurate identification is caught up in a hotly contested court battle. An elected official in our state recently said, very publicly, that violence is an appropriate consequence for being openly queer.
Through all of this, we keep fighting, we keep living and working and creating and dreaming, as we have always done and will always do. We find moments of joy, connection, and celebration. We throw glitter in the face of persecution. And we need your help.
When I said that the fight for equality can’t end at corporate rainbows, I meant it, but there’s more to it than that. When young queer and trans people in a place like Montana see a t-shirt celebrating their identity in a small-town Wal Mart, that’s not nothing. Being seen is a lifeline.
The same is true in organizing. When LGBTQ+ people are constantly barraged with messages that we don’t belong (in this state, this country, this sport, this bathroom), we need a chorus behind us saying yes, you do. We need to hear it from the local nonprofits, the schools, the politicians, our employers, our colleagues, our friends. We need your help to make it so obvious that trans people belong that it seems absurd that it was ever a question, because it is! If ever there was a time to be full-throated in your unconditional support for trans youth, it’s now. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know all the right things to say; if you show up for us, we’ll gladly teach you. Queer organizers have taught me what it means to work for a better world, and they’ll teach you, too.
So, consider this a call to action. How are you committing to showing up, in ways big and small, for the queer and trans people in your workplace, your state, our country, once June is over?
Izzy Milch is the LGBTQ2S+ Advocacy Organizer at Forward Montana. They’re a Montana-born queer who believes deeply in the revolutionary potential of joy. When they’re not organizing for a safer, queerer Montana, they like to spend their time tending to their small zoo of pets, roller skating to Dua Lipa, and making gay little collages out of vintage Playboy magazines.
Let’s Fight Back: 3 Ways to Continue Supporting Abortion Access
Today, the Supreme Court eliminated the federal constitutional protection of abortion rights set by Roe v. Wade and gave the authority to decide abortion rights to individual states. This decision threatens the lives of millions who will seek an abortion, especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color, and people working to make ends meet. Let’s fight back.
Here are three ways you can protect abortion after the SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade
1. Call your Senator
When the decision was leaked in May, the Alliance Network demanded elected leaders take action to protect abortion access. And it is the filibuster that stands in the way of progress. Senate Republicans have already used this “Jim Crow relic’ to block critical voting rights legislation. Call your senator today and tell your legislators to end the filibuster in order to codify our rights to an abortion.
2. Support Abortion Funds and Reproductive Justice Orgs
It will take all hands on deck to protect the lives of pregnant people seeking an abortion and there are many organizations that have been working on abortion access and justice for years. Learn from and donate to these orgs:
abortionfunds.org – The National Network of Abortion Funds builds power with members to remove financial and logistical barriers to abortion access
liberateabortion.org – The Liberate Abortion Campaign is an effort comprised of more than 150 reproductive justice and rights groups working in coalition to fight for abortion that is available, affordable, accessible, and stigma-free for anyone who needs it.
reproductiverights.org – The Center for Reproductive Rights is a global human rights organization of lawyers and advocates who ensure reproductive rights are protected in law as fundamental human rights
prochoiceamerica.org – The 2.5 million members of NARAL Pro-Choice America fight for reproductive freedom for every body.
sistersong.net/reproductive-justice – SisterSong is a Southern based, national membership organization to build an effective network to improve institutional policies and systems that impact the reproductive lives of marginalized communities.
Youth organizers from orgs like New Era Colorado, Loud Light, Mississippi Votes and more are fighting to protect abortion access. Support these organizations in the network, so we can continue to protect our right to life-saving healthcare.
ICYMI: How the Threat to Abortion Rights Could Mobilize Young Voters
Last month, Alliance Network leaders from Mississippi Votes, New Era Colorado, and Loud Light spoke with NPR host Juana Summers about how young people will take action in a world without the protections of Roe and why we need our elected officials to take action now.
Research and stories from our community tell us that limiting abortion access will severely affect our mental health. When people do not have resources or the option to make decisions about their bodies, they experience fear, stress, anxiety, depression, and much more.
Abortion is healthcare. And having access to abortion is critical to the mental health of our communities. We deserve the right to make choices about our bodies
Together, we can pressure our elected officials to side with the majority of Americans who believe that abortion access is a human right. Call your senator, support youth organizers, and donate to abortion funds. It’s time to fight back.
How Alliance Organizers are Honoring Juneteenth Today and Always
While we celebrate the Fourth of July as the day the United States won independence from England, Black people in this country would not gain freedom for another 89 years. It wasn’t until June 19th, 1865 – two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation – that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that the Civil War was over and all enslaved people were now free. And now, Juneteenth is recognized as a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States, but this isn’t enough.
We must continue to fight for Black people in the United States to be seen in their full humanity and treated as such. This week, the Alliance is celebrating Juneteenth by highlighting the youth organizers who are fighting for Black liberation in their communities.
Black Liberation in the Alliance Network
We want to celebrate the youth organizers who fight for equal justice and liberation that has yet to be delivered to Black people across the country. Black and Brown liberation organizing takes shape in different forms throughout the network; here’s a look into what the Alliance youth organizers are doing to continue this work in their communities.
Restoration of Voting Rights
Chicago Votes has been leading some of the most revolutionary voting rights through their Unlock Civics program. In 2019, they wrote and passed landmark legislation – the Voting in Jails bill – that expanded voting access for incarcerated citizens who are eligible to vote. This made Cook County Jail the first jail in the country to become an official polling location allowing for 1,500 people in pretrial detention to vote.
Now, they are organizing to pass new legislation that would restore voting rights to people in prison.
Next Up is organizing to pass legislation to restore voting rights to Oregonians in prison. This bill would not only restore voting rights, it would also address the disproportionate silencing of the voices of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx citizens due to their higher rates of imprisonment.
Washington Bus organized to help pass legislation that would immediately restore the right to vote for 26,000 Washingtonians who are convicted of a felony and released from jail, removing complicated and expensive barriers for returning citizens.
Mississippi Votes worked to defend against over 70 voter suppression bills and also supported 52 voter suffrage applications through the state legislature in the 2021 Mississippi legislative session. Today, MS Votes continues to lead voting rights restoration efforts.
Getting Cops out of Schools
Since their founding in 2018, Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) has been at the forefront of the fight to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline in their community. In 2020, after years of organizing, public pressure, and over 1,000 testimonies, the Milwaukee Public School Board unanimously passed a resolution to end all contracts between the Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee Public Schools! They’ve also blocked TSA-style metal detectors from schools and decreased police presence in and around Milwaukee and La Crosse area-schools.
Now, LIT is calling for Wisconsin universities to divest from policing on campuses and reinvest those funds to support BIPOC communities and students in their Dare to Divest campaign.
The Virginia Student Power Network is demanding the immediate dissolution and abolition of the Virginia Commonwealth University police department. They are also calling on the university system to re-allocate those funds to directly support Black and Brown students on campus and increasing support for University Counseling Services. In May of 2021, they took direct action across the state and dropped banners on campuses calling for cops off campus.
Divesting from Police and Holding Police Accountable
Ohio Student Association (OSA) worked in coalition to canvass, host educational events, and collect signatures to pass the Citizens for a Safer Cleveland ballot initiative and won this last November. This initiative would ensure independent civilian oversight of investigations into police misconduct and give final authority on discipline decisions to a board of community leaders.
New Hampshire Youth Movement is supporting the efforts of local Black Lives Matter chapters to defund the police and reinvest that money in local communities across the state. In 2020, they hosted trainings for young people to learn how they can support this work in Manchester, Keene, and Dover by focusing on city council budgets and ballot initiatives. New Hampshire Youth Movement also hosted letter writing workshops for young people to write to their local leaders about reinvesting resources away from police departments and into community services and health initiatives.
This year, they launched “D.A.R.E” – the Don’t Alter Real Education program – to combat critical race theory and other banned topics in New Hampshire schools.
Poder in Action has been holding the police in Arizona accountable for their violence against community members. In 2019, they conducted a report asking community members about their experiences with the police and found experiences of profiling, mistreatment, and distrust. Poder in Action is currently fighting to block additional city funds from being allocated to the police.
Affordable Housing for Black Families
Minnesota Youth Collective is part of the Minneapolis United for Rent Control coalition building a movement for strong rent control, mobilizing to council meetings, and community events. After the rent control ballot measure passed last November, the coalition is fighting for policies that reflect the needs of the majority-renter population in the city. With inflation at 8%, working-class people face a real choice between paying sky-rocketing rents with wages that aren’t keeping up with inflation, moving out of their communities, or losing their homes. Forty-five percent of renters in the metro area have become cost burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. As a result of systemic racism, the homeownership gap between white people in Minnesota and people of color is the fourth-highest in the nation.
Abortion Access is Black Liberation
Mississippi Votes knows that abortion care is essential to Black liberation. The burdens imposed by Mississippi’s law making most abortions illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy falls hardest on people who already face structural barriers to health care, especially Black, Indigenous and other people of color, and those having difficulty making ends meet.The only abortion provider in Mississippi is at the center of the case that could overturn Roe v. Wade. MSVotes is part of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition assuring that Mississippians know that they still have access to abortion and contraception.
Spotlighting Black Leaders in the Network
Strong Black leadership is another way we celebrate Black Liberation. Get to know some of the Black leaders throughout the Alliance Network, and the work their orgs are doing this year!
Youth organizers in the Alliance Network know that the fight for Black liberation will transform our communities and create a better future for us all. We’re grateful for their leadership always – but especially today.
Stay Posted on the Primaries
The Alliance Network works year-round to protect our democracy and expand voting access for young people, and that includes fighting hard for primary elections! After a not-so-off-year, election prep is in full swing again for states with early primaries. Here’s a glimpse of some of the organizing happening in the Alliance Network in the weeks ahead.
May 2022 Primaries
North Carolina Asian Americans Together
Leading up to their May 17 primary, NCAAT worked in multiple Congressional Districts, Senate Districts and House Districts throughout the state to help turnout Asian American voters in the primaries for progressive candidates who prioritized safe and inclusive communities, educated citizens, and fair representation. They sent 137,000 mailers, attempted 30,000 calls, knocked on 500 doors, greeted voters at the polls with slate cards, and promoted social media ads, which helped to raise the Asian American early vote turnout to its highest level since 2014 for a midterm primary election!
MOVE Texas worked in House District 28 to help turn out voters in the Democratic runoff between Jessica Cisneros and Henry Cuellar (the last anti-choice House Democrat). Through phonebanking, texts, and a weekend of door knocking, MOVE turned out as many people as possible for Jessica Cisneros in a tight race with a 177 vote difference that is still too close to call.
Last year, Forward Montana filed a lawsuit to challenge voter suppression laws passed by the state legislature that made it more difficult for Montanans to cast their ballot. In early April, a judge granted their request for a preliminary injunction on their voting rights case! This means that until a final ruling is made, Senate Bill 169, House Bill 506, and House Bill 176 are no longer in effect. Forward Montana also held five candidate forums ahead of their June primaries.
Early Spring Primaries
Leaders Igniting Transformation
LIT is getting Wisconsin vote ready! Their local primaries included a big mayoral race in Milwaukee and school board seats up for grabs in La Crosse, where LIT secured mental health resources and family assistance programs last month. Wisconsin’s first statewide election is April 5th.
The youth organizers at MOVE Texas are getting out the vote for early voting! They know that the future of their state –from civil rights, to healthcare, to climate change– lies in the hands of those who win these seats during primary elections:
38 House seats
3 seats on the Texas Supreme Court
Dozens of local or state legislative races
Chicago Votes x Next Up Oregon
Forward Montana filed a lawsuit challenging their state on a bill that would have caused chaos by removing judges from pending court cases and decreasing accessibility of political activity for college students, and won!
✅ Make sure you’re prepared for your state’s first election this year by visiting our #VoteReady hub!
✅ Check back to stay posted on local organizing in the Alliance Network
2022 Mental Health Week
Happy Mental Health Awareness Month! Every issue has an impact on our mental wellness, so this week we are sharing messages from across the Alliance Network on how some of our key issues impact the mental health of young people. Check back throughout the week to see updates on topics ranging from abortion access to voter rights!
Abortion Access x Mental Health
Abortion access is a mental health issue. Research and stories from our community tell us that limiting abortion access will severely impact mental health.
When people do not have resources or options to make decisions about their bodies, they experience fear, stress, anxiety, depression, and more.
New Era Colorado launched The Brazen Project, a student-led initiative dedicated to ending shame and stigma around abortion and empowering our peers to speak up and speak out about abortion access. They support students organizing on their college campuses to fight abortion stigma, to build support for abortion access, to share their stories, and to help students to advocate for better policies.
They also recently passed the Reproductive Health Equity Act!
How the Alliance Network is Organizing on Abortion Access:
Loud Light – Loud Light is fighting a constitutional amendment that would remove the right to an abortion from the state constitution. The amendment would give a simple majority of state legislators absolute control over abortion regulation including the ability to ban abortion without exception.
Mississippi Votes – The only abortion provider in Mississippi is at the center of the case that could overturn Roe v. Wade. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, trigger laws that ban all abortions occurring in the state will likely be enacted. Mississippi Votes is part of the Mississippi Abortion Access Coalition assuring that Mississippians know that they still have access to abortion and contraception
Research has found that states with more voting access and greater civic participation levels are healthier overall. States with more exclusionary voting laws are less healthy. When people have more access to the ballot box, they can directly vote on issues that affect their health and build better social inclusion and belonging in their community.
When our democracy is healthy, people are healthy.
MOVE Texas has always been a fierce advocate for voting rights. They’ve organized press conferences, rallies, protests, lobby days, and more to push back against harmful voter suppression efforts in their state.
Even when an anti-voter law passed late last year, they did everything in their power to ensure Texan voters could register to vote, learn about what’s on their ballot, and make a plan to vote. Most recently, the MOVE team helped voters in the primaries when many ballots were being rejected due to voting law changes.
How the Alliance Network is organizing around Voting Rights
Chicago Votes – Chicago Votes is leading legislation that would restore voting rights to the roughly 30,000 people incarcerated in Illinois prisons.
Forward Montana – Last year, Forward Montana sued the state over a last-minute anti-voter amendment to the constitution. When they are not fighting voter suppression efforts, they are organizing Student Voter Days and Candidate Forums to ensure our democracy is accessible to all.
Loud Light – Loud Light is continuously fighting back voter suppression efforts in Kansas. Now, they are battling it out in court and fighting gerrymandered maps that dilute minority votes.
Mississippi Votes – Mississippi Votes worked to defend against over 70 voter suppression bills in the 2021 Mississippi legislative session. They also supported 52 voter suffrage applications through the state legislature and are leading voting rights restoration efforts.
NextUp – Next Up is leading legislation that would restore voting rights to the roughly 13,000 people incarcerated in Oregon prisons.
Research tells us that the presence of police in schools fuels the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline. At least 14 million students in the United States attend schools with police officers on site but not staff counselors, nurses, or social workers. Mental health providers in schools provide positive outcomes for students.
Students need support. Not punishment.
Since 2013, Poder in Action has successfully decreased the number of school resource officers (SROs) and increased funding to services that promote learning and wellness in the Phoenix Union High School District. Currently, they are working on urging the City of Phoenix to allocate American Rescue Plan Act funds for mental health to center BIPOC, migrant, working class, LGBTQ+ and communities and not the policing, surveillance and punishment of these communities.
How the Alliance Network is organizing to divest from policing
Leaders Igniting Transformation – LIT is calling for Wisconsin universities to divest from policing on campuses and reinvest those funds to support BIPOC communities and students in their Dare to Divest campaign. LIT staff went to the capitol to provide testimonies to vote ‘no’ on a bill that would give the state grounds to put armed police back in public schools, an issue LIT fought for and successfully won in Milwaukee in 2020.
Virginia Student Power Network – The Virginia Student Power Network is fighting for public safety without policing and building alternatives to the injustice system. This includes finding alternatives to policing in universities and K-12 schools in Virginia.
Support Alliance Organizations Fighting for Divestment from Policing
A recent survey tells us that more than 60% of borrowers feel that student debt negatively affects their mental health. When people aren’t able to pay their bills or their student loans they often feel shame, guilt, and anxiety. Canceling student debt would not only heal more than 44 million people, but would allow them to focus on the future.
We should be building our dreams without debt.
Virginia Student Power Network is continuing to protect the progress they’ve made on recent higher education wins, including passing legislation to provide in-state tuition and state financial aid for undocumented students in Virginia!
Right now, Virginia Student Power Network is pushing VA Commonwealth University to implement a tuition freeze and stop them from raising tuition on students during a student debt crisis.
How the Alliance Network is organizing to cancel student debt.
New Era Colorado – Last year, New Era was Colorado passed the Student Loan Equity Act which protects students from private student loan lenders. Most recently, they passed legislation that ends the punitive practice of withholding transcripts and diplomas!
Ohio Student Association – OSA is fighting to defeat anti-critical race theory bills by holding teach-ins, collecting testimonies, and hosting a direct action opposing the bills. They’re also working to get debt navigation programs passed in state legislatures to end the Transcript Trap.
The Washington Bus – The Washington Bus team is continuously pushing to make bridge grants available to students, stronger equity and diversity initiatives on campuses, and more mental health resources a reality for more students across the state.
Student Debt Stories
“I currently owe $58,929 in private student debt, which is almost $10,000 more than when I graduated less than 5 years ago, making it impossible to afford all my basic necessities and start paying the exorbitant monthly payment. The stress that has come along with this burden has deeply impacted my mental health. I’ve begun taking medication for anxiety and I am certain this is related to the economic instability I am facing.”
— Hayley Banyai-Becker
Denver Regional Field Manager, New Era Colorado
“Student debt affects my mental health because having an enormous, seemingly unending debt can feel so heavy. With the constant threat of payments restarting looming ahead, it feels like we are in a game of limbo where the only options are to lose. What is even more painful to me is watching our government continue to prioritize funding for wars and police while we are all struggling. It’s mental and emotional violence.”
— Kalia Harris
Executive Director, Virginia Student Power Network
“The student debt crisis has detrimental effects on mental health. I experience much internal conflict because I am unsure what I want to do in the future, and money is the focal point of those concerns. We need free college and student debt cancellation because they’re necessary steps towards guaranteeing autonomy for people’s lives.
— Ruby Wang
Join Our Dreams Not Debt Campaign:
Sign the petition demanding Biden take bolder steps in canceling student debt, reform the student loan program, and make public colleges and universities free for all.
The Alliance is building a strong community of young leaders, and to do that we have to care for ourselves inside and out. So, what are you doing to take care of yourself this month? Here’s what some of the Alliance staff are doing to practice self-care.
Building Power, Organizations, and Leaders: Our 2021 Annual Report
Before embarking on the journey to implement our new five-year strategic plan, we wanted to take some time to celebrate 2021! The Sankofa bird teaches us to go back to the past and bring forward that which is useful. So, before we look forward to 2022 and beyond, let’s take the time to celebrate all the ways the Alliance showed up and showed out in 2021 to fight for our communities, our futures, and our values.
When it comes to elections and civic engagement, we know there’s no such thing as an “off-year.” In 2021, many of the Alliance Network organizations were some of the only organizations engaging their communities ahead of important municipal elections. For example, Forward Montana worked in coalition to pass legislation that would extend the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force beyond its termination date, while organizers at Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) fought for an end to the policing and criminalization of BIPOC students on Wisconsin’s public university and college campuses.
Leadership Development in our Communities
Every organization in the network hosts powerful training programs to help build the bench of the next generation’s leaders.Throughout the year, Alliance orgs fostered the leadership development and civic education of young people in their communities through internships, fellowships, and other organizing programs. Our network graduated over 200 young people through local programs in 2021!
Leadership Development in the Network
Our Executive Director Bootcamp supported leadership transitions for five women of color in the network this year with a space dedicated to digging in with our national team on operations, fundraising, management, compliance, and more.
Community and Collaboration Through Cohorts
Our cohort spaces were created to serve as a space for communications, program, operations, data, and development peers to meet regularly and work through challenges together and learn from each other. Last year, we built upon our cohort offerings, expanded the program to include staff from Youth Organizing Partners, and launched an advocacy cohort!
In addition to bringing on Dakota Hall as our new ED, to better support the ever evolving needs of our network, the Alliance grew in size and in expertise. We added positions to the Communications, Data, Development, and Operations teams and promoted five staff members!
We created a strategic plan that directs us to strengthen the network by doing what we do best — centering capacity building for youth-led and focused organizations, raising and distributing funds to the network as a funding intermediary, and expanding the network, with young Black, Indigenous, people of color organizers leading the way.
Thank you for being a part of building youth power, organizations, and leaders in the Alliance Network. Looking back on our successes in 2021 only makes us more excited for what’s to come.
A Look Back on the 2022 Dreams Not Debt Week of Action
In early April, we took a week to dream of a future without student debt. April 4-8th we took a series of actions to tell President Biden the time to cancel student debt is NOW. Here’s a quick recap of the week and how you can keep the momentum going!
Dreams Not Debt Actions
We dropped a new Dreams Not Debt video! At the rally we attended, we asked people what dreams they would make a reality if their student debt was canceled tomorrow. For many young people, student debt is the barrier separating them from their next phase of growth.
To that we say, “no more!” With the stroke of a pen, President Biden can make all these dreams a reality. Sign the Dreams Not Debt petition calling on the Biden Administration to:
Take bolder steps in addressing the student debt crisis by canceling all current student debt
Reform the student loan program to mitigate future student debt
Make public colleges and universities free for all students
Since the launch of the campaign, we’ve been collecting student debt stories. President Biden must hear the words of those with student debt and take action on the student debt crisis.
During the Week of Action, we highlighted the stories from youth organizers in our network, and had the chance to highlight a guest-writer on the Alliance blog! Akii Butler, student organizer with Ohio Student Association, shared his student debt story and what he hopes to do with a life free from his student loans.
Whether you currently have student debt or are worried about future student debt, we want to hear your story. We want to know what future you are not able to dream up for yourself because of student debt.
On Monday, April 4th the Alliance team along with our network organizations Ohio Student Association and Virginia Student Power Network hit the streets to join an in-person rally outside of the U.S. Department of Education hosted by our friends, Debt Collective. Through the power of words, art, and dance, young people from across the country demonstrated the importance of freedom from student debt.
Dreams Not Debt Twitter Chat
On Tuesday April 5th, we hosted a Twitter Chat where we posed several questions to our followers around student debt. Here are some of our favorite tweets from the event:
We also shared what Alliance Network orgs are doing to build a debt-free future in their communities. We featured new updates from New Era Colorado, Virginia Student Power Network, Ohio Student Association, and The Washington Bus.
Dakota Hall and Rachael Collyer, Program Director at Ohio Student Association, were quoted in this USA Today article on student debt and how Biden’s lack of action on one of his biggest campaign promises might hurt Democrats in the midterms.
“This is a promise that needs to be delivered on and could have some real implications for Democrats if they can’t,” Collyer said. “Like, actually deliver on the promises and make real change.”
I have dreams, but with student debt they’re just fantasies
by Akii Butler
From my parents to my teachers, everyone told me how important it was to attend college when I grew up. However, no one prepared me for the harsh realities after college, especially the burden of student loans and how hard it would be to find employment. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio – a city that has gone through many challenges, one of the biggest being the lack of jobs. I was inspired to want more for myself and my family. I believed continuing my education was the solution.
Since graduating from college, student loans have been a dark cloud over my head. The constant phone calls and emails reminding me how much I owe is too much to bear. At one point, I had a loan turned over to the Ohio Attorney General’s office, threatening to garnish my wages. Even with a college degree, it is hard to get a decent-paying job that would allow me to pay my loans back. And with interest constantly building, I fear it may get to a point where I won’t ever be able to pay off the debt.
When President Biden made the campaign promise that he would cancel at least $10,000 of each American’s student debt, I felt like I had the chance to breathe and start over – no longer would the weight of my student debt be on my shoulders. Yet, Biden’s inaction on this campaign promise scares me because the possibility of student debt cancellation becoming a reality seems out of reach. It is too easy to point fingers and say I need to take responsibility because I have committed to pay back these loans. It isn’t that simple. We must not ignore the predatory nature of loan servicers. We can’t overlook how most borrowers can only cover the interest; many people haven’t made a dent in their debt. Or the fact that there is a lack of debt navigation programs and funding for those programs to help graduates understand the process. This system sets borrowers up to fail.
When I reflect on my student loans, it feels like I am in a never-ending cycle. I can defer my loans and get a temporary break from paying them. Still, student loans are just another burden that continuously weighs me down in addition to the cost of rent, utilities, phone, car insurance, car note, and buying groceries. Student loan debt relief was the promise. To not yet deliver on that promise is an outrage.
I have dreams. I want to accomplish so many things in this world before I leave. Whether I choose to put my journalism degree to use and start a magazine or further my education and get my law degree, with the weight of student debt on my shoulders, my dreams look more like fantasies that will never become a reality. But with the stroke of a pen, President Biden can turn this current nightmare of student loan debt into a dream of opportunity where I can build the life I want for me, my family, and my community.
Akii Butler was born in Virginia Beach, VA and raised in Youngstown, OH. He is Ohio Student Association’s student organizer for the Columbus area and Kent State University. Before joining OSA, Akii spent his time organizing as a student at Kent State University, and after with a local organization. During his time with OSA, Akii hopes to make an impact and bring emerging and unique college students together to help make the change they want to see.
Read more student debt stories from the Alliance Network on the Dreams Not Debt page.
How Local Organizations are Building a Debt-Free Future
We believe that higher education should be free and accessible for all. While we are trying to solve the $1.7 trillion student debt crisis at the federal level, it is critical that action be taken at the local level to protect students. That’s why youth-led organizations in the Alliance for Youth Action Network are fighting to protect student borrowers and ensure higher education at every level is accessible and affordable for all.
Last year, our organizers were making moves in reforming education systems in their communities, so we checked in with them again to see how they’re making equitable and accessible education a reality for all. Here’s how they’re doing it:
New Era Colorado
In Spring of 2021, New Era Colorado passed both of their priority bills, the Student Loan Equity Act and Financial Literacy Standards! The New Era team engaged 85 different volunteers to mobilize their peers around student debt last year, which resulted in over 1800 young people taking action. In addition, they developed two educational videos on student debt which led to multiple earned media hits including an interview with Elite Daily and an Op-Ed in the Colorado Sun.
New Era has also helped students through the The New Era Colorado Foundation Student Assistance Fund. This program assists students who owe debts to an institution of higher education through individual grants. So far, they’ve assisted 86 applicants, 79 of those applicants being people of color.
This year, New Era’s priority in legislation is around a harmful student debt practice that inhibits the economic freedom of many young people, particularly young people of color: transcript withholding. HB 22-1049, which would prohibit transcript withholding, just passed the House, and is heading to the governor’s desk very soon where New Era is confident it will be signed into law!
New Era Colorado worked to pass the Student Loan Equity Act—a trailblazing bill that would create protections for private student loan borrowers in Colorado. Private student loans don’t receive many of the basic protections afforded to borrowers of other types of loans. As a result, borrowers are vulnerable to shady loan industry practices, like robo signing and auto-defaulting. The Student Loan Equity Act will protect these borrowers, create greater transparency, and offer better recourse if lenders break the law.
Ohio Student Association
For the last eight years, Ohio Student Association (OSA) has been dedicated to changing the policy landscape for higher education. This year, OSA is fighting to defeat HB 322 and 327, Ohio’s own anti-critical race theory bills, by holding teach-ins, collecting testimonies, and hosting a direct action opposing the bills. They’re also working to get debt navigation programs passed in state legislatures to end Transcript Traps.
In regards to Black student equity, OSA is making big moves this year! Their Black Student Equity Report will survey Black students’ experiences at colleges and universities statewide. This report will be the first of its kind. It will assess affordability and equity issues that uniquely affect Ohio’s Black student population.
The Ohio Student Debt Association has worked hard to center student voices in these fights and uplift student debt stories. They are working in coalition with other organizations across the state to tackle student debt. Read their report with Policy Matters Ohio on higher education in Ohio. The OSA team met with Senator Sherrod Brown and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur to share student debt stories.
Virginia Student Power Network
Virginia Student Power Network (VSPN) is continuing to protect the progress they’ve made on recent higher education wins, including passing legislation to provide in-state tuition and state financial aid for undocumented students in Virginia! Right now, VSPN is supporting legislation that would increase access and reduce barriers to higher education for students.
On campuses, VSPN organizers at University of Virginia won a tuition freeze at their university, meaning tuition rates on this campus are guaranteed to stay stagnant until the 2024-2025 academic year. Their staff has also done research to increase transparency on campuses around federal stimulus funding for Virginia universities. Throughout the VSPN network, students are demanding tuition freezes, hybrid classes, mask mandates, availability of testing on campus, and funding for mental health resources.
VSPN has a track record of organizing and winning issue-based campaigns for college affordability across the state. In 2014, they won a campaign to create a $1 million emergency fund at George Mason University for low-income, first-generation, undocumented, and homeless students. For four years in a row, they have mobilized students for annual advocacy days at the General Assembly calling for an end to student debt and free public college.
During the 2020 legislative session, Virginia Student Power Network worked in a broad coalition and engaged 30 student leaders to advocate for in-state tuition for undocumented students, which was selected by the Governor as a priority bill and was written into law after a 15-year fight. They built upon this work during the 2021 legislative session, and Virginia is now the seventh state in the nation to give undocumented students access to state financial aid!
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they launched a statewide pressure campaign on universities to provide equitable COVID-19 relief to students, staff, and community members. They conducted research on federal CARES Act and American Rescue funding to Virginia schools to illuminate the fact that universities were still profiting from the deadly pandemic while students were incurring more debt than ever. Student organizers at the University of Virginia fought and won a tuition freeze through their “COVID Action Now” campaign. VCU student organizers held a town hall with administration and hundreds of students, faculty and staff to hold the university accountable for mishandling the pandemic.
The Washington Bus team spent this legislative session mobilizing on College Equity on House Bills 1659 and 1840. HB 1659 would have expanded Washington’s Higher Education grant program to include more folks to receive the full grant. This bill would have also added bridge grants to recipients for things outside of tuition and fees. HB 1840 was the core of the draft legislation Washington Bus organizers worked on with Communities for our Colleges. This bill would have established the task force on improving equity and diversity at the community technical colleges, and expanded mental health counseling to an additional four colleges.
Sadly both bills haven’t made it into law, but the Washington Bus team is continuously pushing to make bridge grants available to students, stronger equity and diversity initiatives on campuses, and more mental health resources a reality for more students across the state.
The Washington Bus helped to pass the Our Colleges our Future Act! They won a $33 million investment in Community and Technical Colleges (CTCs) in Washington State, with a focus on racial equity and investment in low-income, BIPoC students. This bill included mandating diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic plans for all CTCs in Washington, winning funding for 200 new full-time faculty positions, funding for a pilot mental health counseling program, and funding for outreach and retention program for BIPoC students. The Our Colleges Our Future Act also changed residency requirements to make financial aid more accessible for undocumented students. Community Colleges are the backbone of our higher education system, and the Washington Bus worked tirelessly alongside partners to make sure they are investing in the education of BIPoC and low-income students.
Join our Dreams Not Debt Campaign
Wanna take action around student debt? Check out our Dreams Not Debt campaign! Millions are putting their futures on hold – buying a house, getting married, having children – because they can barely keep up with their monthly student loan payments. We’re urging the Biden administration to keep their campaign promises and cancel ALL student debt.
We are in a massive student debt crisis. $1.7 trillion is owed by 44 million people across the country, disproportionately impacting Black and Brown youth. That’s why we launched Dreams Not Debt – our campaign to put pressure on President Biden to deliver on his campaign promise to forgive student loans and take even bolder steps to address the student debt crisis. Dreams Not Debt also invites student loan borrowers to tell us their dreams of a future without student debt holding them back. Will you join us?
PICK UP THE PEN, JOE: April 4th Day of Action for Student Debt Cancellation
The Alliance team is hitting the streets! We’re joining our friends at Debt Collective alongside our network organizations Ohio Student Association and Virginia Student Power Network in Washington D.C. in front of the Department of Education for a Student Debt Cancellation Action!
Check out our Instagram for updates!
Tuesday, April 5th
Dreams Not Debt Twitter Chat at 2pm ET
Join us for a Twitter Chat about the effects of the student debt crisis and how we can create a debt-free future.
Check back for or updates on how our network organizers are fighting to change the policy landscape for education at every level!
Thursday, April 7th
Student Debt Stories
We’ll be highlighting student debt stories on our social media. Whether you currently have student debt or are worried about future student debt, we want to hear your story. Stories are a powerful tool in the fight to pressure elected officials to take action.