Thomas Gokey is also known by various other aliases:
Occupy Wall Street activists at New York’s Zuccotti Park made an ambitious demand nine years ago: they demanded mass student-debt cancellation. That year, Gokey helped organize an ambitious “People’s Bailout” project called Rolling Jubilee with the goal of buying $9 Million worth of medical and educational debt at pennies on the dollar so it can be cancelled outright.
Early Life and Education
Thomas Gokey grew up in the suburbs of New York City and struggled to gain admission into a Catholic seminary; but after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, his dream of becoming a priest faded.
Instead, he created an artwork as payment on his student loans: pulping bills into paper sheets and selling them as art to interested collectors. Though his debt didn’t diminish immediately, this art project allowed him to reconsider its significance for society as a whole.
Ten years later, Gokey is co-founder of Debt Collective – an activist group working to buy and cancel $9 Million worth of medical and student debt owed by ordinary Americans. Gokey and two other organizers explain their plan.
Nine years ago, Thomas Gokey stood in Zuccotti Park wearing a graduation gown made of trash bags and duct tape to represent the six-figure student debt he faced at that time. Thomas was one of few Occupy Wall Street movement members at that time who advocated for mass student debt cancellation.
But he realized that government and financial institutions wouldn’t just give in because his group demanded things of them, so he began considering possible leverage points where action could be forced from them.
Gokey has since co-founded Strike Debt and organized with Rolling Jubilee fund to purchase debt and cancel it – two movements dedicated to fighting debt. We asked him about their efforts.
Achievement and Honors
Thomas Gokey is an accomplished songwriter with 12 number one songs to his name and three albums recorded to his credit. His works have been performed by Carly Pearce, Rascal Flatts, Michael W. Smith and Mandisa among many others.
In 2007, he created an art piece titled Total Amount Rendered in Exchange for a Masters of Fine Arts Degree to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Pulped into Four Sheets of Paper that presented his student debt as art. From this project came The Debt Collective – an organization fighting economic injustice through debt resistance.
Organization currently working on various projects and last year honored community game changers through their Rolling Jubilee Honors Gala with performances by beloved Nashville musicians Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett and Lauren Alaina among many others.
Thomas Gokey is a married man living with two children in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and owns and enjoys betting on sporting events. James Traub introduced them and they started betting together starting February 1975.
Gokey became discontented with this approach and attended meetings where other protesters discussed making demands of government or Wall Street. This seemed odd to him and he wondered what levers people may use to influence either side.
He proposed buying debt, later known as the Rolling Jubilee among activists. They began with limited success initially focusing on medical and personal debt before Occupy inspired them to shift focus toward student debt.
Gokey is best-known for his performances on American Idol Season 8 as well as for his single, “Hope in Front of Me”. His net worth is estimated at an estimated of $600 thousand.
Gokey’s decision to treat his student loan debt as art inspired discussions among anthropologists, sociologists and economists about its influence on economic conditions and opened doors for him to collaborate on various projects with Occupy Student Debt Campaign’s Rolling Jubilee debt buying project.
Through his work with this group, he’s laid the essential organizational and legal groundwork that has transformed canceling 45 million Americans’ student loans from an impossible dream into near political certainty. Together with others from his collective – now part of the Debt Collective – he continues to fight for more structural changes.