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BLM sets up student relief fund as loan forgiveness stalls

KEYT

By AARON MORRISON
AP National Writer

The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation launched a new relief fund Monday aimed at Black college students, alumni and dropouts overburdened by mounting education costs and the student loan debt crisis.

The foundation said it set aside $500,000 for the fund and plans to award more than 500 recipients with relief payments ranging from $750 to $4,500. A public application process opened on Monday, and recipients will receive their money in January if selected. Details about the fund were shared with The Associated Press ahead of the launch.

The Student Solidarity Fund expands a previous initiative the foundation started last year as millions of Americans struggled to make ends meet amid economic uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic. This time the foundation said it intends to use philanthropic dollars to draw attention to issues of economic injustice, especially while a proposed federal student debt forgiveness plan is held up by litigation from opponents.

“The fact of the matter is that Black people who work to get an education are struggling right now,” BLM foundation board chair Cicley Gay said. “We recognize that we can’t build a world of true liberation without the brilliance of Black people who are committed to furthering their education.”

The relief is meant for bachelor’s degree recipients, as well as those who did not complete their degree but still carry student loan debt. Applicants must have attended a college or university in the U.S. The foundation is asking applicants to submit loan documents to prove their eligibility.

If selected, applicants with $75,000 or less in debt will receive $1,500. Applicants with debt between $75,001 and $150,000 will receive $3,000. And applicants with $150,001 or more in debt will receive $4,500.

The money is not restricted for use only on student loan payments, but the foundation said its relief funds are meant to lower recipients’ overall debt burden.

In a second phase of the fund, the BLM foundation said it will give $750 microgrants to relief fund applicants currently attending historically Black colleges and universities to help with housing, food, technology, books and transportation costs.

Foundation board secretary Shalomyah Bowers, who runs the consulting firm that the movement organization hired to build out its philanthropic capacity, said Student Solidarity Fund applicants do not have to prove they are Black. But fund administrators will be working to weed out scammers.

“Black people shouldn’t have to jump through hoops and jump over hurdles to get the access that they need,” he said.

Tahir Murray, an HBCU ambassador for the Student Solidarity Fund, said he often hears from Black students who describe being distracted from their studies due to stress over lacking scholarships and grants.

“Black students have disproportionate access to aid and resources that take into account historical discrimination and the experiences of Black people navigating a society that does not see or treat us as equal,” said Murray, a 2021 Howard University graduate who owns the HBCU lifestyle brand LegacyHistoryPride.

The relief fund comes less than two weeks after the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the Biden administration can proceed with a plan to broadly cancel student loans. In August, President Joe Biden said the government would forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for Americans with annual incomes below $125,000, and would cancel up to $20,000 for recipients of the Pell Grant.

More than 26 million people had already applied for the relief, with 16 million approved. But the government stopped processing applications in November after a federal judge in Texas struck down the plan. Conservative attorneys and Republican lawmakers are challenging the legality of the debt forgiveness plan, arguing Biden cannot take this step without congressional approval.

A high court ruling is expected by early summer.

“We could sit around and wait, and hope that legislators do what they promised by providing loan relief, or we could step up and do it ourselves. And we’ve decided to do the latter,” Gay said.

Last year, while Americans waited for Congress to approve a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that included direct payments of $1,400 to Americans earning less than $75,000, the BLM foundation gave out $3 million in microgrants of $1,000 to nearly 3,000 Black people.

That initiative launched just as the foundation opened up about the tens of millions in donations it took in after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a case that sparked racial justice protests around the U.S. and world. Earlier this year, the foundation revealed in a nonprofit tax filing that it had nearly $42 million in net assets at the end of the last fiscal year.

The tax filing also showed the foundation spent nearly $6 million on a Los Angeles-area property that includes a home with six bedrooms and bathrooms, a swimming pool, a soundstage and office space. The property is intended as a campus for a Black artists fellowship, the foundation said.

The financial revelations set off a fresh wave of criticism from the left and right in the political world and from both inside and outside of the broader BLM movement. Several months after the disclosures, the foundation’s structure remains the same. It is run by a three-member board of directors, including Gay and Bowers.

In August, a group of local chapters and activists known as BLM Grassroots filed a lawsuit in a California Superior Court against Bowers. The suit alleges that he and his consulting firm broke an agreement to turn over control of the foundation’s digital assets and its finances to the grassroots organizers of BLM, allowing him to profit personally and professionally from the surge in donations.

Bowers told the AP the allegations are “frivolous” and untrue. An attorney for the foundation last week filed a court motion asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

Regarding the relief fund, BLM Grassroots director Melina Abdullah said: “We are glad to hear that (the foundation) is using a portion of the vast funds that they appropriated from the movement for the benefit of Black college students, and hope they will be sure to distribute funds in a way that aligns with Black Lives Matter’s mission of ending state-sanctioned violence against Black people.”

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Aaron Morrison is a New York City-based member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.

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