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How Online Activists Worked for Years to Change the Face of Student Debt

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, October 27 2011

A protester at a student Occupy march in Boston earlier this month. Photo: Lauren Metter / DigBoston.com

Wednesday morning, when the White House announced its official response to an online petition calling on President Barack Obama's administration to absolve Americans of their high levels of student loan debt, was a big day for Robert Applebaum, a Staten Island lawyer.

Since Jan. 29, 2009, 37-year-old Applebaum has been an online activist pursuing the cause of student loan debt forgiveness. Days after Obama's inauguration, Applebaum — fed up at the tenor of conversations about economic stimulus — wrote an essay making the case that forgiving student debt, not spending stimulus money, would jump-start the nation's economy. Sharing that essay on Facebook — and anywhere else he could — brought together a group that now stands at nearly 650,000 people. A graduate of SUNY Oneonta and Fordham Law School who now works mostly on advocacy while picking up "legal side work" to pay the bills, Applebaum says his own student debt isn't crippling to him — but he wants to speak out on behalf of those in a tougher position.

Applebaum was the author of that online petition submitted to the White House, which, he says, originated from a petition on MoveOn.org's SignOn.org platform. The White House's response came with a new promise to accelerate the pace of initiatives already on the books to help some people with student loans consolidate and ease their debt obligations — but Applebaum says it's not enough, and he will continue using online tools to advocate for more.

"I'm honored and gratified that my petition was the very first one that they responded to. That's an honor to me," Applebaum told me today. "I'm also gratified that the president recognizes the problem. However, his proposal, what he announced yesterday only goes to highlight the limits of unilateral executive action."

I asked Applebaum what he thought of spending such a long time working as an online activist. A former Republican who told me he was once active in the Staten Island Republican Party, Applebaum says he went through a period of political inactivity while working for the Brooklyn district attorney's office in the 1990s. When that period ended, he came out of the closet — Applebaum is gay — and left the Republican Party over its positions on homosexuality.

"I never dreamed when I first posted that essay two and a half years ago that more than ten people would ever read it," Applebaum said. "I never intended to accidentally start a grassroots movement. If I had known what was to come by writing that essay I would have used a fake name."

Applebaum said that a combination of the latest fights over the economy in Congress, and the Occupy Wall Street protests, reinvigorated the cause he's been carrying a torch for since 2009. After years of sharing links and opinions online whenever he could, he is now part of a network of activists advocating debt forgiveness, including Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.), who introduced legislation earlier this year advocating for Congress to forgive student loan debt. Their cause also has a roving call to arms in the form of a film, "Default: The Student Loan Documentary," created on a shoestring budget by filmmakers Serge Bakalian and Aurora Meneghello.

"Default" is screened on college campuses around the country in engagements arranged through email, Facebook, and Twitter, the film project's outreach coordinator, Kyle McCarthy, told me today. The 30-minute film is culled from over 30 hours of footage, he said, and the project team raises money by passing around links to donation pages at each screening, as well as online efforts at places like the fund-raising site Indiegogo. McCarthy says over 50 PBS affiliates are also scheduled to show the film.

McCarthy also thinks Congress and the White House have a lot of work left to do to address an expected $1 trillion in student loan debt for Americans this year. Advocates say the provisions Obama announced today don't apply to people who default on their student loans — and unlike other debts, student loan debt can follow debtors through bankruptcy.

"You default on your loans, your credit is destroyed, you can't get an apartment, you can't get a cellphone or something because you can't pass the credit check," said McCarthy, 29, who told me his own repayment period on over $70,000 in debt, spread across multiple loans, began shortly after he blew out his knee at a soccer tournament. "You can't qualify for certain jobs with your credit score. It's affecting our generation in such an enormous way."