Four years ago, the federal government loaned Eric Olson $90,000 to attend law school at Northeastern University in Boston. Now he says he's not giving the money back; at least not the way his loan guarantor would like.
Olson's the founder of and, so far, sole participant in, the Invest-In Project. Olson started the project two years ago when he said he realized there was a higher and better use for his student loan repayments than to send the money back to the banks from whence it came. Instead, Olson has redirected repayments to organizations that help children living in poverty. For the past two years, instead of writing a monthly check to American Student Assistance (ASA)-the organization that oversees the distribution and repayment of federal higher education loans-Olson has sent an average of $500 a month, or a total of $12,000 to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and Youth Force, a South Bronx youth-run community organization that focuses on juvenile justice and human rights.
He's kept records verifying that the money's gone where he says it's gone and he's also informed ASA about his alternate repayment plan and the reasoning behind it. Not surprisingly, the organization doesn't approve and has become increasingly aggressive about reclaiming the money.
Olson's been called a coward by ASA loan collectors, and a spokesperson for the organization, who declined to speak about Olson's case specifically, held up the clear-cut fact that Olson, like everyone else who takes out student loans, signed a promissory note guaranteeing he'd repay the loan in monthly installments six months after graduation. The more students default on their loans, the less the chance that that money will be available for others who need help financing their college education.
Olson sees the logic in the critique but responds by gently analogizing himself to black freedom fighter Harriet Tubman-someone who escaped oppressive circumstances but returned to help those unable to get out on their own.
“The people I'm concerned with are the ones who never get [to college] because the system's so screwed up that they're cut out from the very beginning,” he explained. “For the few people who escape the system, the question becomes, once you've escaped, what do you do? Do you go back and get the rest of your folks and bring them to freedom or do you go on, get a good career, and make lots of money?
“I think that by going back and challenging an oppressive system,” he said, “you do good by everyone.”
“Challenging an oppressive system” means that through his actions, Olson hopes to get the attention of the source of the money-the banks that put up the principal and, in exchange, make a profit from accrued interest.
He's done some research on these banks and his findings indeed highlight a skewed social system. In 2000, for example, Terrance Murray, the CEO of Fleet Boston Financial, took home a $38,174,832 paycheck in addition to $23,206,900 in stock options. The NAACP Economic Reciprocity Initiative, which grades corporations on contributions to those in need, gave Fleet Boston a D for a lack of community outreach, especially to people of color. In a letter to Fleet Boston, Olson offered Murray a suggestion of how he could spend his extra cash. For the 12 million U.S. kids living in poverty, Olson pointed out, “Mr. Murray could pay for every hungry child's $3 school lunch... and still have $2 million left over to live on for the year.”
Olson knows firsthand about what he's advocating for. He was born in El Paso 30 years ago to parents from Mexico. When he was 5, his parents divorced. His mother turned over everything to Olson's father and moved her two sons to Ohio for a new start. There his mother worked as a waitress and on the production line in an automotive plant, a job from which she was fired for speaking up about workers' rights.
It was in Ohio that Olson got his first taste of what it meant to be a minority race. “When we first got there, they put us in the newspaper. It was 1978 and there were no other Mexicans in town. It was a friendly piece, but it was, ‘Look, real live Mexicans.'”
Olson quickly proved himself a good student-the one his mother hoped would get a good job and help out his family. His choice to go to law school, though, was less about becoming a lawyer-at the moment he has no intention of practicing law-and more about arming himself with knowledge that will help others in need of legal advice.
Olson said he chose Northeastern-a costly private university-because he was awarded a $30,000 scholarship, the best offer among all the schools he applied to. The school also offered a public-interest focus and a co-op program that allowed Olson to get experience working with organizations that jibed with his own ideology. Prior to law school, he had spent three years working with AmeriCorps, a national nonprofit service organization, to work off undergrad student loans incurred at a state university.
Olson said his alternate loan repayment plan developed while he was still at Northeastern. Given his roots, he realized the magnitude not only of what he had achieved, but also what it was costing to achieve it (Massachusetts ranks as one of the most expensive states for higher education) and how limited the same sort of opportunities were to those from similar backgrounds. One of Olson's heroes is Martin Luther King Jr., and he found the words in King's “I Have a Dream” speech to ring oddly true to his own beliefs and situation.
“When the architects of our republic wrote the... Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all people... would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' It is obvious that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her poor citizens, and especially poor children are concerned....” (Olson, in recounting the speech, replaces King's “Negro” with “poor”).
When Olson began approaching organizations he'd like to give money to, many were hesitant to accept, given the full story. Shirley Webster, who was the executive director of Youth Force at the time, said she was impressed with Olson's ideology and had no qualms about accepting the money. “We realized that he is fighting for people's justice just as we were,” she said. “He just goes about it a different way.” Webster added that she herself is repaying graduate loans and wishes she had the guts to do what Olson's doing.
Joy Taylor, who was head of Youth Force's funds committee when Olson got involved, said the money went to fund a summer youth employment program at a time when the state had cut funding for that program.
Olson says that defaulting on his loans has ruined his credit, and ASA says their next step is to garnish his wages. In that case, he says he'll stop taking a paycheck, and while that will make his preferred “repayment” more difficult, he hopes it will give him a chance to draw attention to the message he'd like to send to the people in control of the money.
“The federal government is ultimately the guarantor on my loans,” he acknowledges. “The question I'm posing is, who is the guarantor for all these children's lives? What I'm trying to get at is property rights versus human rights.
“Our failure to balance civil and political rights with economic, social and human rights is beginning to corrode,” he added. “I'm not saying my project is the answer or the one that's going to solve that. Ultimately, America's going to have to solve that question if it's going to save itself.”