'It feels like enslavement': This working mom owes $240,000 in student loans. Now she's fighting for full cancellation to live her American Dream 'freely.'




Brooks told Insider that she owes more than $200,000 in student loans.
Brooks told Insider that she owes more than $200,000 in student loans.  
  • A California educator says that she owes more than $200,000 in student loans.

  • Richelle Brooks, a principal in South LA, has joined the fight to cancel student loan debt for all.

  • She told Insider that a major part of her fight for relief is to give her children a future without crippling debt.

One of Richelle Brooks' dreams is to send her two children to college without taking out any loans. She knows firsthand how taking out a loan to pursue higher education can amount to crippling debt.

"My daughter wants to be an anesthesiologist. My son wants to be a computer engineer. Two little Black kids want this for their future," Brooks, 35, told Insider. "And this country is telling me it's impossible for me to get them there. It's a terrible, hopeless feeling."

Brooks borrowed $203,000 collectively to attend undergrad, graduate, and doctoral studies. And over the years, has accumulated over $30,000 in interest.

"Yeah, $240,000," Brooks said.

In 2020, she decided to politicize her inability to pay back her loans. Apart of the Debt Collective, she joined a group of strikers called the "Biden Jubilee 100," calling on the president to cancel student debt within the early days of being in office.

Brooks' American dream is simple.

"My hope is that if my student loan debt balance is canceled, I can start saving for them and planning for their future," she said. "But I'm also hoping that we can get a free college education so that I don't have to also worry about how to finance their future either."

Black student loan borrowers typically have more debt than white college graduates, according to experts.

Dr.
Dr.  

Dr. Brooks (middle) and other members of the Debt Collective outside of the White House.Courtesy of Dr. Richelle Brooks

Living in California as a single mother is financially taxing, she said. She works as a principal in South Los Angeles, a career which she adores, but she often has to have a side hustle to live comfortably.

With the burden of student loan debt, saving money for the future is not a luxury for many Black borrowers.

Recent data highlights that Black borrowers disproportionately have more student loan debt, on average paying back $25,000 than their white peers, according to Education Data Initiative.

"Black borrowers have to take out more student debt to go to school, and Black women take out more student loan debt than any other group," Cody Hounanian, Executive Director of the Student Debt Cris Center, told Insider. "For a majority of Black borrowers, they owe more after 12 years of being in repayment than they originally borrowed."

And for Black borrowers who pursue want to go beyond a bachelor's degree, they often, on average, have just over $50,000 in debt, with 45% being from grad school, per Education Data Initiative. Another factor to consider is that Black grads are subjected to lesser pay once employed, making it difficult to pay off their overwhelming debt.

Biden last week said his administration plans to forgive $10,000 in federal student-loan debt for borrowers earning under $125,000 per year, with up to $20,000 in relief for those who received Pell grants and fall under the same income threshold. However, for borrowers like Brooks, it's not enough.

Brooks decided to continue to go to school because she could not pay back her loan, a personal method of striking that she's been doing since 2012. However, the student repayment pause during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a temporary weight off her shoulders and gave her a break from attending school.

"So many demands are put on me already in addition to having to stay in school because I can't pay this debt. It feels like enslavement," Brooks said. "Getting those notices, it's slightly traumatic. [The pause] gives you a sense of relief, a sense of hope, because you're not constantly weighed down by this idea of that monthly payment."

'I really just want the space to hope and dream freely'

Democratic lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezRep. Cori Bush, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, have been pushing for student loan forgiveness - and since Biden announced his student loan relief plan, progressive lawmakers are demanding more relief.

Eliminating student loan debt could potentially close the racial wealth gap. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge has highlighted that the student loan crisis is making it more difficult for Black people to own real estate.

And according to Hounanian, it puts another roadblock to obtaining generational wealth.

Student loan debt hinders Black people, even with the highest of degrees, "who just never can access the benefits that an education was intended for," Hounanian said.

"The National Association of Realtors have said that student loan debt's one of the top issues preventing Black people from purchasing homes… and that also perpetuates the generational wealth issue," he continued. "So it really has a domino effect that impacts their finances for years to come after they attend school."

Brooks called it a "dream deferred."

"As soon as we reach one goal, the goal post is moved," she said. "It always feels like we're drowning, and as soon as we come up for air, we're pushed back under again."

She added, "When I went to college, it was sold to me, this is a way to achieve success. This is a way to upward mobility in this country. You become a college-educated person, and then you can buy a home, and you can travel. You're afforded some freedoms and luxuries due to your hard work, right? And it just wasn't true."

In addition to canceling up to $20,000 for individuals that earn less than $125,000, the president also extended the payment pause to December.

The National Association of the Advancement for Colored People (NACCP) acknowledged the progress, but Derrick Johnson - president of the organization -called for the cancellation of $50,000 or more.

"I'm tired of this. It's a mental constraint. We're straddled with this balance that is hanging over our heads, and it's heartbreaking. It's emotionally fasting," Brooks said.

"And I'm drained today, especially because I've been fighting for a while. And I feel like I've been given crumbs. I really just want the space to hope and dream freely."

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