By Will Falk
For the last year, it goes like this: My phone rings precisely at 6:30 AM. I groan in bed and reach towards the shelf holding my phone. By the time I locate my phone, I’ve missed the call. It’s from an area code I don’t recognize. They’ve left a message, so I curse, roll over, cuddle a pillow to my chest, and fall back asleep. When I wake up there are three more calls from three different area codes with three more messages. I listen to the messages.
They are all the same. The prerecording plays, “Hello, this is Heather from Sallie Mae Department of Education Loan Services with a message for” and there’s a short pause, a hiss, and a mechanized voice saying “William Fawk.”
I chuckle to myself. The machines never know how to pronounce my last name. Falk, like talk with an F. And poor Heather-from-Sallie-Mae-Department-of-Education-Loan-Services will never track me down, though she has been getting rather sly lately. She calls from an area code where I have friends or family like 414 (Milwaukee) or 317 (Indianapolis) forcing me to check my messages just to make sure I do not miss a call from someone who matters.
My student loan debt hasn’t always been so much fun. I remember a couple years ago, the first time I logged into my Sallie Mae account from my desk in the Kenosha, WI State Public Defender Office. It was my first week on the job and I was swept up in a newfound sense of adult responsibility. I was determined to design a personal budget where I would make my monthly loan payments, set aside a little money for my retirement plan like my dad told me to, and have a bit left over to spend in relaxation to offset the stress as a trial attorney trying to keep people out of prison.
I listed out my numbers before I accounted for my loan payments. My gross monthly income was $2600. Rent for my one bedroom apartment in Bayview – an old working class Milwaukee neighborhood famous for labor rights and a labor massacre – was $700 a month. Blessed with my mother’s furnace of a metabolism, I allowed myself $150 for groceries a month. I would need a tank of gas a week to get to work and back and forth from the county jail to see clients. For the gas, I set aside $200 a month. This left me armed with $1550 to attack my student loan payments and have some spending money for the weekends.
Maybe you can imagine the brick Sallie Mae threw at my forehead through the computer screen when I read my monthly student loan payment coming in at over $1900 a month?
I iced the emotional bruise I took from Sallie Mae’s brick and resolved to figure my loans out. $1900 a month was just the standard ten-year plan. I started reading about my options. I learned that I could put my loans on a twenty or thirty year plan, reducing my monthly payments, but also paying more in interest in the long run. At 25 years old, ten years seemed (and still seems) like an eternity. Committing to something for twenty or thirty years was simply something I could not fathom because I lacked any experiential reference.
I reached out to the University of Wisconsin Law School Alumni Services. They explained to me that, as a public sector worker, the federal government offered a forgiveness program where if I made my minimum payments for ten years and remained in public sector work, the government would forgive the rest of my loans. I realized this was my best option, worked out a deal with Sallie Mae to pay $400 a month, enrolled in the forgiveness plan, and started breathing easier.
Then, the reality of life as a public defender set in. I began working 60 and 70-hour weeks. I sat with clients in jail explaining to them how much prison time they were likely to get. I struggled to meet their gaze when they asked if me if there wasn’t anything else I could do. My fists clenched under courtroom tables as judges yelled at my clients for stealing from Wal-Mart, for lying to racist cops, for driving to work without a driver’s license, and then condemning my clients to cages.
Depression set in. Many days I walked out of the county jail, sat in my car, and wept. Some nights I got home at 7:30 pm and went straight to bed without dinner. Other nights I hardly slept at all haunted by my failures from the day before. I knew I could not keep this up. I was not cut out for a life as a public defender. But, what could I do? I was enrolled in the best possible student loan repayment plan the government offered. If I left my job, I would lose the plan and be forced to face twenty or thirty years paying off over $200,000.
I began to feel horribly guilty for considering walking away from the work.
Public defenders are doing incredible work. The American so-called criminal justice system is the nation’s most racist institution. Michelle Alexander points out that there are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850. How could I turn my back on my clients? How could I live a life after gaining full awareness of this problem, after being in a position to help, and after leaving all those people to their fate in prison?
I was exhausted by the work. I was exhausted by the guilt. I felt trapped. And, as I’ve written so much about, I tried to kill myself twice. Luckily, I do not know how much Ambien or Klonopin it actually takes to kill a 6’2 190 pound male. I survived. But, in the time since my suicide attempts, my guilt surrounding personal finances has not.
I am engaged in full-time activism. I live out of an 80-liter pack where I carry a cold-weather down sleeping bag my mother bought me, a tent, four t-shirts, two pairs of pants, a set of long underwear, five pairs of boxer briefs, four pairs of hiking socks, a toothbrush, toothpaste, several collections of poetry, and a red Wisconsin Badgers hoodie. I do not know where I will sleep in October. I have $79.60 (Canadian) to my name.
I could not be happier.
Everywhere I’ve been from Milwaukee, WI to San Diego, CA to Unist’ot’en territory to Victoria, BC, I see would-be resistors caught in the fear surrounding personal finances. It’s a basic truism. Our movements would be much stronger if people knew they could fully devote themselves to a cause and support themselves at the same time.
So far in this Do-It-Yourself Resistance series, I’ve focused on some of the emotional and intellectual hurdles resistors must deal with to engage in effective resistance, and now I want to address practical concerns. Money is an essential practical concern. On the one hand, serious resistors need money. Money grants you access to supply, gear, and materials. Money allows you to travel to where you will be most effective. Money buys the food you must eat to survive. On the other hand, the anxiety and shame that capitalism produces can neutralize would-be resistors because, after all, they “have to pay the rent.”
Before I go on, I want to be clear: I completely understand money worries. It is completely natural. It is completely rational. But, if we are going to mount a serious resistance movement, we must overcome the fear and guilt associated with a lack of financial security. I completely understand what that fear and guilt feels like. I have been there in the worst way. I write this in the hopes that people in a variety of financial situations will find ways to work through financial pressures to become effective resistors.
Because of the enormity of the problem facing us, resistance can take many forms. Resistance does not require living out of a pack, on a couple hundred dollars a month. It is simply the path that has opened up to me. We need it all. We need people with mainstream jobs making mainstream incomes who might not be able to occupy the frontlines to provide material support just as much as we need people willing to pick up and go wherever they’re needed.
The first step to overcoming money worries is realizing that this arrangement of power is not your fault.
You did not form this culture that long ago forgot who kept it alive. You did not ask to be born next to rivers that no longer flow to the sea, that have too many dams to support native fish populations, that hold too many poisons to drink from. You did not send blankets carrying small pox to intentionally wipe out the peoples who held the traditional knowledges necessary for living in the most humane ways on this land. You did not order the bison to be hunted damn near to extinction in an insane process that destroyed a relationship that provided humans with the protein needed to live in healthy balance with the natural world for millennia.
This nightmare of competition, selfishness, and shame that accompanies capitalism is not natural. You are alive. To live you need food, you need clean water, and you need shelter from the elements. Before civilization, humans gained what they needed directly from the land. Our present economic system forces us to pay for food, forces us to pay for clothing, and forces us to pay for shelter. In short, it forces us to pay for life. I use the verb “force” on purpose because this system is only maintained through violence.
The process began long ago with the dawn of agricultural civilization. Some cultures stripped their land bases clean of food, water, and soil, and then invaded the lands of more sustainable cultures. Soon, the Fertile Crescent was a desert. Then, Europe fell to the yoke of agriculture. Population boomed. European empires were forced to find their resources in other lands and European laborers unable to support themselves were pushed to the colonies. Indigenous peoples were murdered, driven off their lands, or pushed into tiny corners of the poorest sections of their traditional territories.
This process is ongoing wherever the dominant culture finds resources it decides it needs. In thoroughly colonized regions, the violence is harder to see. But, as the events in Ferguson, MO and the militarization of domestic police forces demonstrates, the system is willing to do great violence here, too. Another way to see the violence is simply to ask yourself what would happen if you ran out of money, were hungry, realized the supermarket has loads of food, decided to take some, and were caught?
Of course, perpetually overt violence may not be necessary once a culture’s ability to produce its own food is destroyed. This is why capitalism always works to make people dependent on the capitalist system for their needs. Once a society’s food security is destroyed it becomes both impractical and inefficient to constantly use open violence. Instead of employing brute force, it makes more sense to convince would-be resistors to police themselves. Capitalist logic encourages the notion that poverty is a sin, that happiness is most likely to be attained through financial success, and even to build shame around the smallest things like asking family for money.
It becomes easier to create and propagate narratives that extol the virtues of America’s opportunistic, rugged individuals than it is to massacre villages. So, once traditional cultures are undermined, the dominant culture focuses on creating institutions and stories to convince the civilized that they live in the best possible world. And the phrase “Kill your television” gains its relevancy.
Some are already making great financial sacrifices. I know a woman who saved up her vacation days for a year, cashed them in, and donated the proceeds to the Unist’ot’en Camp. I know others who have pledged to give a day’s wages every month to their favorite cause. I know others, still, who contribute by maintaining an open, welcoming home for full-time activists to stay in. The point is not so much how many dollars you can give. Rather, the point is to give up some of the anxiety and guilt surrounding finances. The point is to retake your dignity from a system determined to scare you into submission.
It took me a long time to relinquish the anxieties I felt around student loans and I still struggle with asking for help. Sometimes, it takes me too many skipped meals and too many skipped dosages of my anti-depressant to gather the courage to ask for help. I am lucky to have so much support from friends and family. I could not do what I do without them. But, the fact is we all need help, and we all are going to need a lot more help as the fires burning the world get hotter and hotter.
Part of my recovery from suicidal depression involves me recognizing poisoned thought patterns. Guilt over debt is poison. I have decided I will not pay my student loans back. I refuse to pay an illegitimate, occupying, imperial government engaged in genocide around the world for an education that should rightfully be free anyway. Now, when Heather-from-Sallie-Mae-Department-of-Education-Loan-Services leaves me a message, I am empowered to laugh.
Lately, for smiles, I’ve called myself a post-modern Robin Hood. Not paying my student loans is like stealing my education from the government. Just like Robin Hood of old, I stole my education, my intellectual experiences, and my degrees from the rich, and am using that education, those experiences, and the letters behind my name to fight for the poor. Come join me in a refusal to let money stop us from action. We can form a merry band and save the world while we’re at it.
John Lawrence says
Excellent column, Will. I totally support you in your Robin Hood endeavors. Although I never had any student loan debt, (I’m 73 and in those days you could go to University of California for free) I think intentionally not paying your student loan is a wise and noble decision. It frees you up to get on with your life. There are many ways to make money under the table. I have worked totally on a cash basis at times and have lived very comfortably in my work vehicle for periods of time. There are ways and ways of getting out of supporting this sick culture as a consumer and a worker in unethical jobs. Naomi Klein’s new book: “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate” supports the writing you’re doing specifically in this article and the Indigenous way of life.
I have been a window cleaner for 38 years which has nothing to do with my degrees in EE and computer science. I am thankful for the work I do in the open air and sunshine instead of sitting behind a desk in some sedentary windowless office. It’s worked out great. It also has some great psychological rewards since I don’t believe human beings, especially those with high energy like me, were meant to be sedentary. If you ever consider coming back to San Diego and are interested in a career as a window cleaner, please email me and we’ll see what we can work out. I could possibly use some help at my age although I want to stay active at least for another 10 years.
Will Falk says
Wow. Thanks so much for this, John! Thanks as always for reading and thinking about my work. It helps me feel like its worthwhile to spend so much time writing.
It’s been amazing to see how much support I’ve found after deciding to take the leap. I’m not sure when I’ll be back. One of the trade-offs for not having much money is not knowing when and how I’ll be able to travel. But it’s a small tradeoff for the freedom to work how I want to.
I haven’t read Klein’s book yet, but it’s certainly on the list. She’s obviously very popular up here!
Once again Will, another amazing piece.Thanks for sharing your experiences. It is super helpful for me to read everything you write as I also struggle with wanting to actively resist and not really knowing how or where to start sometimes because capitalism and dominant culture Seem so entrenched and impossible to overcome…but you’re doing it and that gives me hope For myself and others. So I just want to say thank you very much, you’re an inspiration.
Will Falk says
Thanks a lot, lj…It can certainly be a process. I’ve found this to be basically true: Once you decide you’re going to resist (however that personally looks) I do think life will conspire to help you. It won’t always be easy, but it will be worth it.
Marc S says
Our society is so heavily geared towards making us feel guilty over debt and money. Those credit rating commercials always make me laugh. Oh no my precious credit rating! It is no small task to make the intellectual and emotional leap to the place the Will Falk discusses here – worrying about where you will sleep instead of how much loan you are paying down or how much you are saving for a pension. I’ve alternated between professional life and backpack activist life. Now with two kids I’m in the professional life as much as I have to be to feed my daughters (2 days a week). I miss the backpack life. Being able to pitch your tent in places with million dollar views is unbeatable. It’s encouraging to hear about others living this way. If it was me I’d spend some of that $79.60 on socks – four pairs isn’t very many. Nothing better than a fresh pair of socks!
John Lawrence says
Working 2 days a week at a lucrative job is one alternative to the rat race. However, most people are so acclimated to the 40 hour workweek that they don’t even stop to consider that possibility. Are you self-employed? What kind of work do you do?
I met a lawyer once in an elevator who just got back from sailing around the world. Said he had run out of money so he was going to hang out his shingle for awhile and make enough money to go back to his first love – sailing around the world. How great to have those kinds of possibilities where one is in a position to do this. It made me stop and think.
These are the kinds of possibilities young people coming up should consider in order not to get locked into the rat race with no way out. I’d like to hear more about how you managed to do this. For me self-employment was crucial.
Marc S says
Yes I’m self-employed – as an IT consultant. My experience is similar to the lawyer you mention. Work for awhile to earn some money and then go back to full-time activism when there is enough saved to exist without a job for a time. It’s been a pattern in my life for over a decade now.
There are many people who do not see this an option. Several people I have spoken to who want to go part-time, but cannot because their partner thinks it is not an option. Others are too concerned about pension, medical benefits and other full-time perks.
It is a struggle at times to live this way. Often it is feast or famine. It helps if you keep expenses down as much as possible. My wife also works part-time and we engineer our schedules to try and make sure one of us is home with the kids. These days it’s more about trying to raise my kids so they can be the next generation of activists then being an activist myself.
Discovered a great article on the Yes! website about an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street named Strike Debt. It was initially formed to buy up and forgive debt created by medical expenses, but just recently it was able to buy up and forgive about $4 million worth of student loan debt belonging to predatory for-profit universities (primarily Everest College). The article also has some good food for thought about the whole issue of debt and mentions a new project of the Strike Debt group called the Debt Collective, sort of a debtors union.
John Lawrence says
Why can’t each individual or a collection of individuals buy up their own debt in the secondary debt market like Strike Debt did for pennies on the dollar and pay it off?
Will Falk says
Thanks for this, Rich. I think the idea of a debtors union is awesome. If enough of us pledged not to pay our loans back, it could be crippling for the whole system.
I am a 32 year old therapist and artist in Canada with debt, guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, anger…I’ve recently decided to leave my work to re-wild, be a greater part of the resistance and find positive communities with real-life alternatives to the machine of work- eat-sleep.
So thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts. Please keep sharing so myself and others can contibue to learn from and be inspired by your journey.
Will Falk says
Thank you very much for the encouragement, Derek. I wish you the very best of luck as you enter the next stage in your life. I know it can be scary to make the leap, but I’ve found it completely possible and mostly joyful (there’s some anxiety sometimes, but much less than to borrow your phrase the “machine of work-eat-sleep”).
Thank you for this article, Will.
I am recently unemployed and am running out of money at this point, but have no debt and am completely free to dedicate myself to the cause. Do you have any advice on how and where someone just starting out can begin to make a difference?
Will Falk says
Ally, this is a very important question that you’re asking. One of my favorite environmental writers, Derrick Jensen, answers your question like this, “Ask yourself: what are the most pressing problems I can help to solve using the gifts that are unique to me in all the universe?”
I think another way to say this is to find what you love to do more than anything else in the world, and then use that passion to protect your land base. My passion, for example, is writing. I love writing and write for hours everyday, so I try to use my writing in defense of the land.
I would also add that it’s important that we organize. We need a serious resistance movement that concentrates efforts in a strategic manner. I personally am a member of Deep Green Resistance. http://deepgreenresistance.org/en/
diane c says
I would love to hear how this goes for you.
I have over $73,000 in student debt from the last year of my undergraduate through my 3 years in policy studies, plus one loan for my child’s art school. I would love to have a job where those debts are forgiven but those jobs are hard to come by. If all my years in volunteering with nonprofits counted I would be golden! I did use the Obama plan to erase some of the fees and consolidated which helps with the overall monthly cost. Other than that I can do nothing else.