Welcome Timmy, PHENOM’s New Executive Director!

This picture of me was taken just about three and a half years ago at the Boston #Rally4PublicEd. It was the end of May and I had just finished my first year as an undergraduate at UMass Amherst. As you can see from the sign around my neck, that also meant that I was $9,000 in debt after just one year at public school.

How does that make any sense? I had gone to public school in Massachusetts all my life, which meant that I was never expected to take out a loan, work an extra job, or make recurring payments for my right to learn. Being a student at a public school meant that I was taking part in Massachusetts’ promise to me and all residents that education is a public good, one which we all play a part in safeguarding. Why did that right arbitrarily expire after 12th grade?

As a proud public school student, I was bothered by this question. As a student debtor, I was anxious and incensed about my loans. As a student organizer, I was ready to do whatever it took to fight back.

Which is how I ended up at the Boston Common in late May, joining together with educators, parents, students, community organizers, and labor leaders to collectivize our struggle and rally for every student’s right to high quality, free public education, from pre-kindergarten all the way through higher education.

I may have arrived at the rally by myself, but I didn’t feel alone. Quite the opposite. The energy was electric. Rally signs filled my view, proclaiming that Free College is Possible! and that we will Demand the Schools Our Communities Deserve! I instantly felt part of something much greater than my individual experience with debt–– together, we were something unstoppable, a movement intent on achieving the promise of public education. And, just as soon as I had arrived, I was greeted and invited to get involved by a man named Zac Bears.

Zac led me to the political action tent where PHENOM was set up and gave me a brief orientation: he introduced me to the neighboring tents and explained how our struggles were connected; he walked me through PHENOM’s literature and the bills we were supporting; and he trusted me to watch over the tent and encourage others just like myself to get involved and take ownership of organizing toward the solution.

Little did I know that was just the beginning. Not only did my student debt continue to grow (now towering at $31,750) but so too did my organizing around free higher education. After the rally, I spent the next three years fighting alongside fellow student organizers doing as much as we could to win our collective right to a public education.

We did everything, from organizing direct actions that led to the creation of a new, cheaper meal plan in our fight to ensure food security; to facilitating countless rallies, speak-outs, and marches; having direct confrontations with Boards of Trustees and the Governor; partnering with legislators to secure state funding funding; to even sitting-in at Speaker DeLeo’s office.

Through all this, Zac, the friendly face who ensured I got involved as a young freshman, was a mentor, comrade, and a friend. Now, I am entrusted with the great honor of continuing his transformative work as the new Executive Director of PHENOM.

I am extremely excited by this opportunity to build community and student power. Right now, our movement stands on the shoulders of every community organizer, parent, student, and educator who fought to bring us here. Fortunately, that means we have a strong foundation. But I’ll be honest: we also have a lot of work to do.

The student debt crisis continues to balloon while tuition is increasing; faculty and student workers are being laid off by campus administrators; across the country, state revenue is falling and legislators are considering massive cuts to already-deteriorating public services; and the COVID-19 health crisis has exposed the blatant neoliberalization and corporatization of public campuses.

At PHENOM, we recognize that state disinvestment from public higher education is part of the same austerity– the same organized abandonment and neglect of our communities– that underwrites many of the compounding crises currently plaguing our nation. The alternative is a politics grounded in community and powered by the people. That means a movement populated by all of us.

To enact a truly liberatory future of education, we need you to be a part of this movement. To propel us forward, there are critical actions we need you to take now:

  1. Will you invest in our movement? We need to keep our momentum alive. By donating, you will directly fund the fair wages which pay our student organizers.
  2. Can you add pressure now? We need the legislature to hear us and our stories. Let your representative know that higher education funding is an urgent priority.
  3. Will you enlist as a volunteer? Our movement is people-powered. By signing up, you’re committing to be a part of the change Massachusetts needs.

Together we will win public financing of public education, pre-kindergarten through higher education; defunding of campus police, campus non-compliance with local police forces and ICE, divestment from private prisons and military occupations, and implementation of restorative justice programs; increased and equitable recruitment of underrepresented students; protections for international, DACA, and undocumented students; debt cancellation; democratic control of public campuses; a Green New Deal for our colleges and universities; student-created demands for racial justice and anti-racism; protections, support, and unions for student workers; de-corporatization of campuses; and increased state revenue through progressive taxation, taxable private endowments, and an end to Massachusetts tax-loopholes benefiting the rich.

As we gear up for PHENOM’s next chapter, I think back three years ago to that rally on the common. Although our political context is much different than it was then, I am just as convinced– if not more– that we are a powerful movement capable of envisioning and building the Massachusetts we want and deserve. I am made hopeful and inspired by one of the greatest lessons that was instilled in me that day: that together, we are unstoppable.

Together, we are powerful.

Together, we will win.

Timmy Sullivan,
Executive Director