North Carolina Resistance Grows, Students Launch #DebtFreeUNC Campaign

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Students from across the University of North Carolina system have taken to the streets in recent months to demand an education system that they can graduate from without taking on crushing student debt. Dozens of students marched to the offices of North Carolina Governor and House Speaker Thom Tillis on May 23rd to deliver a letter with their demands for a truly affordable higher education system.  The action came on the heels of an April 11th march and press conference and a 500-student walk out in February before that, all to protest against budget cuts and tuition hikes that the North Carolina government is forcing onto students of the UNC system.

And they’re just getting started.

The Spring actions come as part of the newly launched #DebtFreeUNC campaign, which is aimed at pressuring the state government to take action that will ensure that by 2020, the state’s students can be guaranteed to graduate without the need to take out student loans to finance their education.

The actions and the campaign are being organized by the North Carolina Student Power Union (NC SPU), a student-run organization dedicated to “building a grassroots, statewide student movement to stop attacks on public education and all forms of oppression in our communities.” The group is one of many other growing statewide student organizations advancing the belief that education is a right for all – rather than a privilege for the few – that should uplift and empower people of all kinds, and that schools should be democratically driven by those who work and study in them rather than a top-heavy class of administrators.

NC SPU has tapped into the outrage that students across the state and, indeed, the nation are feeling as they watch austerity budgets and neoliberal policies decimate education budgets, public services, and environmental protections while huge corporations and wealthy get tax breaks and Wall Street continues to rake in massive profits. The conservative state is already seeing a popular uprising in the Moral Mondays movement, which NC SPU has already aligned itself with, and the group has positioned itself to harness and channel some of that outrage.

The launch of the #DebtFreeUNC campaign is reflective of the broader fight across the nation that young people have been bringing to the banks and government institutions that prop up and profit from the indebtedness of the Millennial generation. To better understand the North Carolina struggle and where it is going, NC SPU organizer and UNC Charlotte sophomore Casey Aldridge spoke with Popular Resistance about the group and its work.

NC Student Power

What is the NC SPU? How did it start and how broad is student involvement in it?

Casey Aldridge: The North Carolina Student Power Union was formed in 2012 out of what was previously known as the NC Defend Education Coalition.  The Defend Education Coalition came together around tuition hikes by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors in 2011 to fight against cuts to higher education. Despite successes in their campaigns, organizers of the Defend Education Coalition wanted to build a group that could sustain momentum and perpetually build and organize students for higher-quality, more accessible colleges and universities.

The NC Student Power Union was built to address these challenges in organizing and to provide a vehicle for all students and university faculty to more effectively and comprehensively fight academic austerity.  The original group had chapters at UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro, and NC State University, and just this spring we’ve formed a strong chapter at UNC Charlotte and are working with students on a number of other publicly-operated campuses to get a handful of other chapters operating in the next academic year – specifically smaller state colleges and North Carolina’s HBCUs, both of which are under greater risk of budget attacks.

As for student involvement, our core organizers consist of anywhere from five to seven students on the campuses we’re active on, and another handful around the state not affiliated with any particular chapter.  Our support networks on campuses is large and expanding rapidly, however, in this economy and academic environment, time is a luxury that fewer and fewer students have each year, and it takes serious time commitment to organize on campuses.  So while only a handful of students are able to do active organizing, it isn’t out-of-place to see students walking around North Carolina campuses wearing red squares pinned to their shirt, or stopping to sign the petition for a Debt-Free UNC system.  We’re seeing serious momentum in our campaign, our meetings are growing, and we’ve been able to develop large solidarity networks with organizations, students, and even media contacts that we have really positive relationships with.

That’s what we have been and are.  Looking forward, we want to provide a serious route to student unionization, and potentially a force by which to replace or to infiltrate the Association of Student Governments in North Carolina.  But we’re trying currently to balance a growing roster of volunteers and organizers with continuing to be a radicalizing space for students.

The final statement in our Principles of Unity denounces “racism, sexism, heterosexism and all forms of oppression” on our campuses, as we believe it doesn’t matter what college costs or what is offered at our universities if they remain exclusive and oppressive institutions to different communities of students.  We know our work has to be intersectional, and for that, it must be radical.

I think if you had to sum up the North Carolina Student Power Union it would be that we seek to build and provide a radical organized voice for students who oppose cuts to higher education and institutional oppression on our campuses.

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What are you hoping to accomplish with the Debt Free UNC campaign?

CA: Much of the NC Student Power Union’s work in the past has been around rejecting proposed tuition hikes or rejecting proposed cuts to faculty pay and academic departments.  And sometimes we’ve been successful on those fronts, with strong student demonstrations, deliberate civil disobedience, and pressure from the public on the Board of Governors and North Carolina General Assembly.  Other times, however, our efforts were disregarded, or we’d have to make concessions at the negotiating table – that is, bargaining for fewer cuts or less fee hikes, as opposed to our demands of no cuts and no fee hikes.

So at our January 2014 Organizing Retreat, we decided we wanted to switch tactics and demand something big.  We looked at a program called the “Carolina Covenant” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a program where the school promises that, if you qualify and attend UNC Chapel Hill, you will graduate without any debt, and they work with the student and their individual ability to pay to make that covenant a reality.  Unfortunately, most students don’t receive any such guarantee, and loans are the only option for financing education.  We want to ensure that if any student decides to attend a public university or college in North Carolina, they should be extended the promise that the Carolina Covenant guarantees.  No student should go in debt to receive an education from any one of the University of North Carolina’s sixteen campuses.

The #DebtFreeUNC campaign was conceived at that retreat, and launched a few short months later, with three demands addressed to the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. We are calling for:

  1. Reduced tuition and increased financial aid incrementally so that, by 2020, the incoming class of all North Carolina public universities will graduate free of student debt;
  2. A moratorium on cuts in faculty pay and funding for departments, especially those cut in recent budgets in order to ensure that the funding for these tuition cuts do not compromise the quality of our public universities;
  3. Forums open to students, faculty, staff, and community members at every Board of Governors meeting so as to include the voices of those who make the university run in decisions about our shared future.

This campaign, instead of saying no to cuts again and again, is an alternative proposal, crafted and put forward by students, demanding what we want.  The #DebtFreeUNC campaign calls for a different trajectory of funding for higher education altogether, which we feel is critical because in the simple writing of these demands, we have been able to put the political establishment and Board of Governors in North Carolina on the offensive.  Governor McCrory just released his budget proposal, which would cut $50 million from the UNC system’s allotted funds for the next fiscal year.  The Board of Governors, meanwhile, has engaged in plans to increase tuition yet again, targeted specifically at out-of-state students.

The #DebtFreeUNC campaign does not distinguish between in-state and out-of-state students, especially because by North Carolina law, “out-of-state” also includes undocumented students who have lived most of their lives in North Carolina.  By setting our sights on a Debt-Free UNC system and an end to all cuts to higher education, we are signaling that not only do we oppose the current budget cuts of the state government and Board of Governors, but we are advocating for movement in the opposite direction:  lower tuition, debt-free education, and restored funding for courses and faculty.

NC Student Power protest 3

So what is the strategy for doing accomplishing the #DebtFreeUNC goals?

CA: For an audacious demand we need equally audacious strategy.  Back in February, the UNC Greensboro chapter of the NC Student Power Union organized a walk-out on about two weeks’ notice to protest the building of a second recreation center on their campus.  The recreation center will cost $91 million, and is budgeted to be financed entirely by new student fees.  Meanwhile, budget cuts from the state to UNC Greensboro mean that over 120 faculty members are scheduled to lose their jobs, over 600 classes dropped, and a handful of majors scrapped.  After several hundred students walked-out, UNC Greensboro student organizers picketed and disrupted a meeting of the school’s trustees the next morning.  UNC Greensboro activists are still engaged in their campaign to “Stop the w(REC)k Center”, and it was the explosion of energy and momentum on their campus that inspired the statewide network of the NC Student Power Union to escalate the actions around our campaign.

Enter the idea for #FightBackFriday.  North Carolina, where the Moral Monday movement was able to grow and capture the imagination of the progressive side of our state, it made sense to try and emulate that kind of tactic: consistent presence, varying messages, and a catchy name.  On April 11, 2014, we marched from “The Pit” on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus to the Board of Governors’ meeting, taking place fifteen to twenty minutes down the road.  A little over two dozen students from around the state, dressed in black and wearing red squares, chanted and marched up to the front of the Spangler Center, where we held a press conference to officially launch both the Fight Back Friday movement and the Debt-Free UNC campaign.  The protest, entirely students and recent graduates, read statements of support from faculty and spoke on the different demands of the campaign.

On May 23, we held our second Fight Back Friday, this time in the state capitol of Raleigh, targeting Governor McCrory for his $50 million cut to higher education and Speaker Tillis, the most influential person in the state legislature, a candidate for U.S. Senator, and a supporter of McCrory’s cuts.  For this action, we individually cut 18,584 red squares and strung them along a fishing wire, with each red square representing a student who graduated with debt – on average, $23,893 – from the UNC system in 2012. Then we marched with the chain of squares to Tillis and McCrory’s offices, delivering letters of our demands to Speaker Tillis in the State Legislative Building and to Governor McCrory in the Governor’s Mansion. We also wrapped up our action with an exciting announcement; our outgoing director, Matt Hickson, vocalized our commitment as a group to hand out every one of those 18,584 red squares to students across our campuses, and to have a conversation with each and every one of those students about who we are, the #DebtFreeUNC campaign we’ve launched, and a conference we’re organizing for September where we hope to convene hundreds of students from across North Carolina to plan our steps forward.

These kinds of Fight Back Friday actions will be organized on one Friday each month until the #DebtFreeUNC goal is attained.  We know we’re in for a long fight, but we’re prepared for that.

We’re exploring different tactics, including a potential two-day student strike in Fall 2014 on as many campuses as we can organize, with faculty and student support, and a mass mobilization at a critical Board of Governors meeting for either this coming fall, or Spring 2015.  We will also be continuing to collect signatures in support of our #DebtFreeUNC petition to show that students and community members across NC and beyond, though they may not have the luxury of time to participate in our actions or to commit to organizing, do stand with us in our demands and aspirations for the UNC system.

The continuation of the Fight Back Friday actions, coupled with a massive conference tentatively set for September 12-14, 2014, and walk-outs and strikes are our game plan right now.  We have a long term strategy, as our campaign sets 2020 as our date for the beginning of a #DebtFreeUNC, and we will continue to evaluate and re-evaluate tactics as we go along.  The petition will serve to supplement our demands, showing broad community support as we continue to collect signatures, as a poll this spring showed a strong majority of North Carolinians already feel tuition is “too high” at public universities.  We also want to seek the endorsement of the Association of Student Governments, or at least the student governments at individual schools, and if we can’t get resolutions passed in support than we have talked about potentially running candidates for the 2015-2016 academic year.

NC Student Power protest 4

What has the government and UNC administration’s reaction been to the campaign thus far?

CA: The NC Student Power Union has only hosted two Fight Back Friday actions so far, and the #DebtFreeUNC campaign is new enough that most lawmakers can claim to have not really even heard of our campaign.  The right-wing controls the Senate and House in North Carolina as well as the Governor’s Mansion, and the Board of Governors – who are not elected, but rather appointed – has a sizable Tea Party majority.  It’s not unrealistic to acknowledge that it’s unlikely the current Board of Governors and current state government will not take action on our campaign.  That’s part of the reason we’ve set long-term, very aspirational goals instead of more short-term ones.

But we’re only at the beginning of a long campaign; we may not be winning action from the state legislature just yet, but there have already been wins in the battle of words.  Just after the second Fight Back Friday, local news outlet WNCN, which covered our protest and letter delivery, also talked briefly to Nelson Dollar, the Senior House Appropriations Chair and a Republican representative out of Raleigh’s own Wake County.  Rep. Dollar explicitly came out and said that he “hears the students’ concerns” and that “[the North Carolina state government] wants students to be able to afford higher education, it’s critical for the economy”.

Politicians are crafty with words, and even if they are directly opposed to the will of the people, no official ever wants to come across that way.  An influential and conservative lawmaker like Dollar would never have put that statement out there without pressure from our action, and forcing that kind of statement so early in our fight is no small feat, and it’s something to celebrate.

A common talking point for opponents of a debt-free UNC system that the University of North Carolina system is one of the most affordable and prestigious public university systems in the United States, with UNC Chapel Hill receiving the honor of “best value” for any public institution for the tenth time in a row. But that is precisely why we have to fight.  Governor McCrory’s proposed budget cuts of $50 Million would make our system less accessible, less affordable, and less prestigious.  The UNC system is one of the prides of North Carolina and we intend to fight to keep it that way.

When conservative lawmakers justify budget cuts by saying the UNC system is a terrific array of schools, we see that it was public investment that gave us terrific campuses and academic quality.  We can’t afford to lose that.  Furthermore, the student debt crisis runs as deep here as it does anywhere else in the United States; what passes for “affordable” education in the eyes of Tillis, McCrory, and Dollar is still thousands of dollars too expensive, and bars plenty of well-qualified students from applying.

With ongoing issues like the attacks on voting rights and recent ecological disasters in NC, some people might see this campaign as a side issue. Why is fighting student debt a priority? How is the Debt Free UNC campaign connected to other social struggles in NC?

CA: Right now, North Carolina is a wreck.  We have a bill in the works that would not only force fracking onto the land of even those who oppose it, but it would also make it a felony for anyone – even first responders or nurses and doctors – to report what kind of chemicals were in water where fracking was present.  We have the most repressive voting laws in the United States right now, and Governor McCrory refused Medicaid expansion funds from the federal government, which will literally kill people without health insurance.  Our state is grappling with the effects of a massive coal ash spill that polluted over 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic chemicals.  And the state legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act that allowed for death row inmates who could prove their execution sentence was determined on the basis of race to receive life sentences instead of capital punishment.

All around, North Carolina politics is a mess, and the Moral Monday movement, which the NC Student Power Union has been a coalition partner for, is addressing those issues.  At the most recent Moral Monday service, Reverend Barber invited youth and students to follow him into the General Assembly at the head of the march.  At the Moral March in February that drew 80,000 to protest in Raleigh, the student bloc was massive and also provided the most radical part of the march.  Socialist groups and radical anti-racism groups marched in the student bloc that stretched back for dozens of rows, and student speakers have been highlighted at many of the Moral Monday events.

Students are fighting against environmental disasters like fracking and the coal ash spill because it is our future and our children’s future that will be most impacted.  We’re fighting against racism and sexism and heterosexism and all forms of oppression because our generation is the most diverse yet of a changing Southern demographic.  All around, students have the most to lose from right-wing attacks on our state and our future, and that’s why the NC Student Power Union has been asked by the North Carolina NAACP to help headline Freedom Summer and the Moral Movement.

NC Student Power protest 5

But while student’s struggles are very intersectional and varied, if there is one thing almost all students face as a burden to their future it is student debt.  Our high school allies in Ignite NC and the Youth Organizing Institute have worked on addressing the school-to-prison pipeline for some time now, and they are lending their support to our student debt fight now, because tuition is simply too out-of-control for many low-income youth to even consider attending.

In framing our conversation, we make sure to point to the fact that student debt is hurting economic recovery without a doubt, as graduates have to put off marriage and buying houses or cars.  College, viewed as the vessel of social mobility for youth, is in fact widening inequality today.  But more pressing still are the personal narratives they impact.

Leading up to our first Fight Back Friday in April, we did a touring event in Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill called “Scary Stories of Debt”, where we would dim the lights and eat chocolate, marshmallows and popcorn, while students would tell their personal scary stories of how debt has impacted them.  Students got very personal in their testimonies, and community members from across the East Coast submitted anonymous stories of their struggles to pay off student loan debt.  Many of the stories had recurring themes but each came from different places: students going to school while their parents were still paying off their debt, students who had been kicked out of their homes for their sexuality and forced to try and figure out FAFSA reports on their own, undocumented students who graduated high school in North Carolina and saw it as their home but had to pay out-of-state tuition anyway to attend their dream school, and college graduates who could only find minimum-wage jobs with their degree.

One student who spoke at our Fight Back Friday in April was a recipient of the Carolina Covenant, but lost her financial aid when her father, who made minimum wage, received a $0.50 per hour wage increase. Now that student is forced to take out private student loans.

We want to continue collecting personal stories because we find them so much more powerful and impactful than charts and graphs about economic growth. We plan on going to the future UNC system Class of 2024 – rising seventh graders today – about what attending college debt-free could mean for them and their families.  Because with as much love as we have for our schools, we don’t want anyone turned away for lack of being able to pay for their education.  Dollar says we have one of the most affordable university systems in the country, but it isn’t affordable enough, and that’s why we have this campaign.  In many ways, particularly education, North Carolina has always been one of the most progressive states in the South, and that’s not the case anymore.  The North Carolina Student Power Union’s task is not only to stop further gutting of our higher education system, but to restore full funding and to provide a high-quality, debt-free education to every student who attends of the sixteen UNC campuses.

Where does NC Student Power Union go from here?

CA: Our commitment to seeing the #DebtFreeUNC campaign through will take considerable focus, resources, and effort.  I think looking forward this means a continuation of the Fight Back Friday movement indefinitely.  We already have a few more small demonstrations planned for the rest of the summer, and most of our organizing will intensify once we return to campus in the Fall.  This September, from the 12th to the 14th we will host a conference where we hope to bring together hundreds of student organizers and general North Carolina youth to plan our next steps, potentially including a statewide two-day walk-out in November, and potentially expanding to include high school students in our organization.  These will be issues we address as an organization, democratically, so that we can best achieve our ultimate goal: the reconstruction of North Carolina’s public universities to the point that they are accessible to all students and are non-oppressive spaces for our generation and posterity.

For more information on the North Carolina Student Power Union and the #DebtFreeUNC campaign, visit www.studentpowernc.org, follow NC SPU on Twitter @StudentPowerNC, or find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/StudentPowerNC.

Roshan Bliss is a student organizer, inclusivity & anti-oppression trainer, and democratic process specialist with a passion for empowering young people to defend their futures and democratize their schools. Bliss, a former occupy activist, serves as Assistant Secretary of Education for Higher Education for the Green Shadow Cabinet.