Re-imagining Debt & Sustainability:
a Collective Approach with Laurel Newnham

This class will be held through a zoom meeting

the password is WYFYschool2019

Welcome, students and fellow collaborators, to this class on emotions and major debt in the current US moment. Thank you to the BUFU community for establishing and hosting the WYFY School and engaging in this conversation. I am honored to bring what I have learned about debt and emotions to this space, and am looking forward to what we can create together.


A note on structure: This class is being run online from Seattle, with students from the far reaches on the internet.  I have alternated sections discussing David Graeber’s book (the central text for this class), with collaborative sections meant to inspire discussion during and outside of class. This class text will become part of an archive through BUFU and The WYFY School for continued access.


What we will study: The staggering national debt held by students has become a political talking point after a decade of protests and critiques against rising tuition. Students in the United States collectively owe at least $1.6 trillion dollars, the second largest debt category after mortgages. While more students are receiving college education, the cost of tuition is estimated to have gone up over 200% in the last 30 years. Within the national debt conversation are words such as: “responsibility”, “money”, “sustainable”, “collective”, and “debt”. I would like us to reconsider these words as we assess our current debt situation and redefine the emotional expectations for living in this contemporary economy. My intended audience for this course is anyone concerned with the emotional maintenance related to large sums of debt, and how we might develop collective support around this shared condition. Together, we will explore how the cultural paradigm of guilt and fear surrounding student loan and medical debt, with the anthropological support of David Graeber's book Debt: The First 5000 Years that examines debt relations over millennia.


How we will study: We will be taking a collaborative approach to overturn the narrative of guilt and shame surrounding the current/future student loan debt and medical bills in the US. Conventional resources for getting out of debt refer to distressed emotions in passing, without engaging with the core narratives that shape these emotional responses or the contexts in which they are rooted. When we take a historical assessment of debt, we are better able to attune our responses to contemporary debt. My goal is to cultivate emotional and financial stability by grounding our responsibility in the present context of debt experienced inter-generationally, with a significant burden on the lower end of the workforce.


A note on feelings: In addition to strategizing these financial sums, we have an opportunity to collectively rediscover wealth and resources that will aid us during this new economic era. The emotional rhetoric that overlies the financial condition of owing money does not and is not intended to contribute to paying back debt faster or with greater ease. Instead, fear and guilt predictably result in avoidance, which can lead to default or penalties. Addressing the current moment as a community issue can alleviate some of the individual anxieties placed on those who owe money.


Why feelings and major debt: With a generation of students coming of age to find lower salaries, decreased access to housing, soaring tuition and medical costs, a calculus must be done that addresses the narrative sold to us along with this major debt. In a time when minimum professional qualification is often a college degree, the gap between costs and debts is in need of examination. Pairing a contemporary understanding with historical information that formed the present condition will empower us to build a support system that is inclusive and sustaining. Sometimes the zeros run together, but we share that in common and can forge solutions from that knowledge.



My story, how I came to study major debt/feelings: From my earliest memories, my grandparents encouraged me to seek information independently and pursue higher education. My grandmother would often tell me to get a PhD, even it there wasn’t lots of money at the end of it. Since I was 13, I have also dealt with chronic pain which complicates a typical work/school schedule and comes with its own narrative of worthiness. My personal debt research began during my graduate studies in Wales, where British parents asked how it is possible for students to carry so much debt (and that this differs greatly in Britain). I hope this research begins a conversation that can lead to collective empowerment. Thank you for joining me here.



The Course


When we talk about envisioning a strategy, we are choosing the technical and emotional aspects from an array of possibilities we need to get us to the next stage. This vision can begin with emotional wellbeing and end with no longer being in debt, in part by assessing the narrative and the context surrounding debt today. We are choosing an intentionally collaborative vision, understanding our shared perspectives and the insights available from broader experiences.


The way we use words influences how we form narratives around these, the way we use them with others, and the emotional connections we form to these words. The premise of this class is that the negative critique of borrowers in this cultural moment needs to be dispelled and replaced with a collective empowerment approach. I have chosen some words that I feel contribute towards the ways in which I want to emotionally approach debt (personally, and externally), although you might come up with additional and unique words.


Some Definitions


debt: debt is a very specific thing, and it arises from very specific situations. It first requires a relationship between two people who do not consider each other fundamentally different sorts of beings, who are at least potential equals, who are equals in those ways that are really important, and who are not currently in a state of equality –but for whom there is some way to set matters straight. (DG, pg. 120)


money: a current medium of exchange in the form of coins and banknotes (OED)


wealth: the assets, property, and resources owned by someone (OED)


responsibility: the state or fact of being accountable; the opportunity or ability to act independently (OED)


collective: done by people acting as a group (OED)


empowerment: make [someone] stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights (OED)


sustainable: able to be maintained at a certain rate or level (OED)



Debt PT. I: What is Debt?


Most of us here are straddling more than one kind of debt, from student loans in the tens of thousands, medical bills, credit card debt and rent/mortgages. But what is debt, and why do we seem to have more debt now than our grandparents had? Where did all this debt come from, is it somehow our fault? [I will add here and elsewhere that NO, getting an education is not your fault, it is your key to the future. Hang tight, my friends, we’re here together doing this work.] In this course, we aim to evaluate what debt is, how it impacts us collectively, and how we can build a narrative that uplifts us as we work to become free of debt and guilt.


Debt relations are not a static and inherent condition of owing money, and have changed over the course of history and place. The debt crisis leading to the late stages of the Roman Empire and the banning of interest in medieval Islamic bazaars are two examples of diverse approaches to debt across time and location. (In the end, the Roman solutions were not sustainable.) David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years, takes a longform anthropological approach to understanding the human relations surrounding the lending of goods and money.


In his book, Graeber approaches the commonly perpetuated myths about money and debt that firstly, money replaced barter by necessity and secondly, that all debts were intended to be paid by their nature. Graeber argues that the emergence of money was not as a convenient, standardized alternative to barter, as the story is generally told. Rather, paper money emerged as promissory notes that could be traded in for currency later (or not at all), as opposed to a system of circulating money. Throughout history, political leaders would periodically cancel privately held debts to restart the economy (see Graeber’s book for the specifics).  


Globally, promissory notes, tallies, tokens, or notes written in a ledger were all used as symbols of debt, and constituted a guarantee that the accounts would be settled on the honour of those involved. Credit was extended on reputation; this informal system persisted in rural US communities during 20th century wars and mining strikes that caused economic shortages, within living memory of those born in the 1950s and earlier.


Since the 1990’s, Graeber postulates that we have been going back to a virtual money system as we rely increasingly on digital transactions. During what he deems a transitional time in our economy, the cost of tuition has been steadily rising well beyond the rates of other developed nations (sitting roughly 4x comparable UK schools, for example). With the digital remove, cultural necessity, and rising costs, it is little wonder that we are facing a contemporary debt crisis.



Feelings PT. I: You are not your debt.


What are some emotional resources that resonate with you?

If you can, write down some feelings you have about your own relationship to debt. Where did these stories come from?

Is there an aspect you can evaluate from your current level and be more forgiving?


Write down what you gained from your debt, small or large. [We are back to not being guilty for educating yourself, being sick, etc. No shame here.]


How many people do you know around you that also have major debt?

Do they hold similar kinds of debt?


Identify one action you can take today, in one week, in one month to learn about your feelings relating to debt. Check in with yourself. Set up support systems.


Anything you would like to add/ask.



Debt PT. II: Major Debt in the Contemporary US (1980-2019)


Since 1980, the finance industry has greatly expanded the availability of credit. When I first read that Americans had an average of 8 credit cards in 1980, I fell into the squarely into the cultural trap of assuming the cause of their situation was ‘being irresponsible’ … when in fact, credit card companies had been sending pre-approved and activated credit cards since 1968. Not only has credit been easier than ever to come by, banks have been encouraging customers to open additional lines of credit for decades that culminated in the housing market crash in 2008.


[I am firmly of the belief that anyone who desires an education should receive one, and that financial cost should not be a barrier. The student loan debt is also indicative of over a trillion dollars of professional skills, learned directly from classrooms or indirectly from experiences and encounters. Higher education should not be reserved only for those with the means to pay outright.]


One in five Americans carries student loan debt, with the predominant age group being 22 to 35 and extended to senior citizens. As college tuition has more than doubled since 1988, the availability of credit has become easier, with Wells Fargo settling a $110 million lawsuit in 2017 for setting customers up for checking accounts or lines of credit without their consent.


Upon graduation, one in five students owes an average of over $30,000, with the cost of undergrad education far eclipsing the days of paying tuition waiting tables during the summer. The underlying reason for this is not that students in debt are lazy or simply guilty of living beyond their means. We are, however, heirs to a debt lineage in need of serious strategy if we are to create a sustainable economy now and in years to come.


Feelings PT. II: ‘Deserving an education’, the myth


“Education is not a right”, or “you should limit your ambitions”.


Both false. Persevere.


Even inexpensive state schools can cost $25,000+ over the course of 4 years. An Ivy-equivalent degree in England would cost a UK student one third. (2019 figures)


Your unique field of study can contribute professionally. The arts are necessary. Combining art and science enhances both.


What are some ways we can support each other around student loan debt?

Can we host art shows with proceeds going to loans, make community events with friends, explore new modes of connection through the vulnerability of debt?

What are some resources we can use and share without cost?

What are some ways in which we are a resource and can be compensated?

How can we redefine the emotional narrative surrounding education, generally?

How can we make education more inclusive and accessible? (BUFU, for starters!)


My practical suggestion when it comes to student loan debt, is communicating your situation. I have written letters explaining that I work full-time, run my own business, and volunteer in my community. Your public lender might reduce your interest rate for automatic payments.


My practical solution to medical debt is also to communicate with creditors and mention your financial hardship. Ask your elected representatives to pressure insurance companies to list costs up front, and tell you only your portion. Sending bills for $100,000 when the patient responsibility is $3400 is more than irresponsible, and causes predictable emotional dismay.



Wealth & Resources: Existing beyond the accounting of money


What are some other forms of wealth we have?

How can we use this wealth to improve our quality of life outside of the cultural guilt of debt?

How can we re-envision the idea of wealth and money to uplift us even in small quantities?

How and with whom can we share our wealth and resources to uplift them?

How can we use our wealth to inform a society that values education, health, and mutual aid?


To revisit our definitions of responsibility, wealth and collective empowerment as a unified idea, we have the opportunity or ability to act independently using assets or resources as a group, to empower others to become more confident and control their lives and rights. This is what we have to exchange in the face of overwhelming debt. We have hope and community.



What we have achieved:


Taken a surface level approach to historical differences of debt relation

Identified a distinct economic era making up this US moment

Unpacked some cultural beliefs about money and debt

Interrogated our personal vision for emotional wellbeing with major debt



How we can continue:


Share these ideas with friends and family.

Continue to unpack our ideas about debt & money, and where they came from.

Educate our selves about financial literacy, financial history, and collective empowerment.

Practice skill building as distinct from money/savings.

Identify wealth and resources for yourself and others.

Share resources with your community and friends.



Resource List:


David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years (book, audiobook, Youtube videos)

Newspapers, compare stories and presentation

Your local library