An interview with:

Makenzie Vasquez

"It’s been crazy to watch everyone be struggling, especially for these things that, you know, we have a right to!"

Makenzie attended Corinthian College in California. She was a member of the group of original debt strikers, the "Corinthian 15," that demanded debt relief - and won. An interview with her is below:

Looking back, can you talk a little bit about what you have learned as an organizer over the last few years? You could talk about what you've learned about yourself, how you have grown or struggled personally or what you learned about our political system while campaigning. : Ok yeah, I’ve learned quite a bit actually, to be honest. I’ve learned a lot about just how powerful groups of people when they come together, just how powerful they can be. It’s been really nice to experience that, especially coming from a place of feeling really hopeless. And now, I feel like with all of the work that we’ve done and all of the little workshops I’ve been able to go to, I’ve really learned about my debt and ways to go about disputing it. And the way to go about disputing the whole Corinthian thing [debt from Corinthian college] has really left me feeling super empowered, which is a really big deal. I was in a really gnarly state of hopelessness for a while. But yeah, I’ve learned that.
I’ve struggled with seeing how corrupted US politics really are, and it was really a struggle to see how much us Corinthian students had to fight for something that was right-in-your-face super fraudulent. I’ve lost a lot of faith in the political system in having to work so hard for something that the Dept. of Education -- everybody -- was recognizing and saying: “Yeah, this was done wrong to you, but we don’t care because we’re making money at the end of the day.” That was one of the biggest struggles: just seeing how corrupt they were and just how much they didn’t care about a system that they created and that essentially failed hundreds of thousands of students.
Yeah…and it’s like they have all of this power and we are just regular people. They’re making it more difficult than it has to be, when the whole time they have this power to just take care of it, especially to take care of something that they created. This problem is because of them! To put all of the pressure onto our shoulders -- like we didn’t go into this because we knew we were going to be taken advantage of! That was really hard to deal with, and it tore me down in a way where I was like, “Okay, these people don’t care”. But, at the same time, it helped me realize just how powerful people are when getting together. Even though these political parties aren’t going to do anything, if we all get together and push back, we can really set some movement. It was all bittersweet for me.

What does your family think about the organizing work you have done to help win over $600 million in relief for people across the US.? : My family thinks it’s great, and it’s really nice! My dad has been so supportive of me throughout this whole thing, and it’s almost like he looks up to me for doing something because I come from a family that has never been to college. I was the first generation to go to college, and they look up to me! It’s really nice to be able to talk to them with some of the skills that I learned, like I can also help them! Everybody’s been really great in seeing how it’s going. I’ve got a lot of praise and it has shown them just how powerful groups of people together can be.
Before I became involved in this movement, my dad was just so confused about what to do, and he felt really bad because the whole time prior to going to Corinthian, he was like: “You need to go to school. You need to go do something; get a degree.” So because of his pressure (though not entirely because I also wanted to go to school), I just went into something and he was really stoked for me at first. But seeing how everything was turning out before I found the Debt Collective, he felt really bad. He felt so bad for putting me into that situation because he wanted to better my life when I just got $33,000 deep in debt.
All of my family is supportive of me. My grandma is super stoked, like when we posted about our debt strike on Facebook, she reposted it and was super proud of me. I think it makes them feel hopeful in that there’s something being done. In everything that I’ve been doing, I know that they’re stoked. And I talked to my grandma once and she told me that I’d be fighting the good fight! They’re really supportive!

Please tell me about what being an leader and activist has meant to you? : It meant a lot to me, to be honest, because before this, I never really thought of myself as a leader, and I didn’t think I had the power to do anything along these lines. It means a lot to be able to take my story and share it to others, and to help inspire them and try to light a fire in them like it had happened to me, in order for them to gain momentum and to really want to be a leader themselves. It feels really powerful! It feels nice to take on these other entities, these political parties and come out successful.

Have you thought about how other debts that you (your family or friends) struggle with are linked? Housing, medical, education debt, payday loans etc.? : I find that they’re all pretty linked, if you think about it. For instance, the whole teacher thing that’s going on right now -- you have these teachers who are being paid low wages and who have student debt, and you think about taking away their student debt but they still have medical debt and all of these other types of debt! I find that they’re all really related and I think a lot of people right now are struggling with all of these debts! Especially in my community it’s really crazy to see how many people struggle with debt, especially student debt. I have a friend who was like, “I don’t know what to do: my student loan payment is coming up and I barely have enough to feed myself and pay my rent!” They’re not able to find a job in their field, like they spent all this money to go to school, and they can’t even get a job! It’s been crazy to watch everyone be struggling, especially for these things that, you know, we have a right to! Nobody asks to get sick and to have medical debt. It’s all very unjust.

Tell me what makes you feel strong? What inspires you? : Probably other people, other people getting together and collectively organizing. I just find it makes me feel so powerful. As a whole, as a group, we see that with numbers, we are so powerful and together, we can really make change. That right there is just what really sparked this fire in me to be like, “Okay, I did it before with just 15 of us striking, and we caused such a ruckus that we got invited to D.C. to talk about what we’re going through!” Just to see the potential fear in these other political entities when a group of us starts to get together to do something -- especially around debt, which is just such a huge thing to have leverage over -- that right there makes me feel so powerful, and makes me so ready for social change!

What are qualities of others that move you or motivate you to continue to work like this? What will it take for you to keep going when it gets tougher and over the years as we expand? : I think what it’s going to take to keep going is to keep watching the lives of people around me change with our successes: both the little things we do that are successful and the bigger things. I think that’s what’s going to really help. Simply getting all these people who are struggling together and making them feel powerful, hopeful and empowered with their debt and whatever they’re going through that we can help them with. That right there makes me want to keep going. Watching people succeed with me is what’s going to continue to make me want to do this kind of work. Watching the lives of others get better.
By little successes...I mean I wouldn’t say Corinthian was a “little” success. We got something done. But there’s a bigger picture here. Seeing that we got close to $700 million of debt forgiven is great and is such a fantastic move and it’s really awesome to see a part of what we’re asking for get accomplished! But to see the larger demand (i.e., class-wide relief for this whole situation) is what I’m talking about on a bigger scale. We still have to fight for that. But I think the little victories are almost just as good because it shows people that it’s going to take time and effort from all of us. Look at what we were able to do, and look at what we can do! I feel that the $700 million right there can show people a gateway. Like hey, look at this organizing that we got together and look at what we did, and look at the possibility of what can do with larger numbers.

Who is the Debt Collective?

  • Dawn Lueck
    "Who has the power? Who has the money? And who is being oppressed?"
  • Edwin McDonald
    "I shouldn't have to pay for something that should be a human right to me, like air, water and education."
  • Special Reports

    Debt Collective Members Join Members of Congress in Washington to Endorse the College for All Act

    This is an historic week for organizers and others who have been fighting for years for debt relief and free public college. Since 2014 members of the Debt Collective have been pushing for relief. Now their demands have gone from the margins to the mainstream.

    One American Family

    Strike Debt talked to this family several years ago. Their story is one of millions of reasons we keep organizing.

    Debt Collective joins statewide campaign to eliminate fines, fees and bail in California

    The launch event was held at Chuco’s Justice Center in Inglewood, CA

    Featured Artwork

    Artwork by: Phil Ashworth