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Artist Cassie Thornton is giving Detroiters altern...

Artist Cassie Thornton is giving Detroiters alternative credit reports, because subprime isn’t a character trait

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“Bad Credit Keeping You from a Job? FREE Alt Credit Reports!” blares one of several similar Detroit Craigslist listings posted this month. It might echo the language of one of the many scammy Craigslist posts out there, but there’s no bait-and-switch: The Give Me Cred! project is the brainchild of Cassie Thornton, and it is a genuine act of freely given service-slash-art.  

“They see me as maybe a startup on first glance. They don’t realize I’m an artist,” Thornton told Detour about the intrigued but slightly confused responses she receives to her ads. “They’re people who are really honestly looking for a way to change their circumstances — but special people, because they’re usually sort of open and experimental.”

Thornton is in town this week for a series of events and one-on-one consultations as part of the programming for Red Bull Arts Detroit’s exhibition “Sick Time, Sleepy Time, Crip Time: Against Capitalism’s Temporal Bullying.”

She started the “Give Me Cred!” project while living in the Bay Area, working with an Occupy Wall Street-affiliated debt resistance group and seeing her fellow artists deal with evictions and a tech boom-fueled housing shortage. They struggled to find stable housing without the cash, consistent employment or impeccable credit that would make them obviously attractive tenants to landlords. 

Her alternative credit reports sum up a person’s reliability, trustworthiness and skills that are left out of official reports and show a more holistic picture than a credit score alone.

Here’s how it works. You fill out a short form on Thornton’s site, she gets in touch with you, then you bring your resume and credit report (or she helps you get one) to an hour-long session. This week, she’s meeting up at Detroit library branches; she also meets over the phone. Thornton then goes through your paperwork and helps reframe the gaps and negative marks on your record, in a factual, unemotional narrative that becomes the alternative credit report.

“If someone stopped paying a bill and it went to collections, like there’s always a story behind that. Maybe that was an illegitimate bill or maybe that person had a medical emergency,” Thornton explained. “The story is always, in the United States, coming down to housing and medical care, and people not getting the support they needed to survive something hard.”

An alternative credit report created by the artist Cassie Thornton.
Courtesy of Cassie Thornton

Her clients can then actually use the report to supplement a housing or job application, and anecdotally she’s heard from people who had success finding an apartment or job while using her report. Even if they don’t share it, Thornton said the new narratives help people gain a different perspective about their situations, rather than seeing failure or shame in their own financial history. 

“I look at the credit report and then I’m like, let’s look at the conditions that you survived, which were really not easy… actually, you’re pretty amazing for surviving a predatory financial landscape,” she said.

The Detroiters who have reached out so far are facing a range of economic challenges, whether seeking a job or a more secure housing situation. With widespread low credit scores and difficulty accessing credit in the first place, high unemployment, predatory housing schemes and lenders wherever you look and a massive eviction problem, Detroit seems like a prime spot for Thornton’s work — and she’s eager to learn more from Detroiters while she’s here, too. 

“I’m also trying to learn about how people are already kind of hacking systems and building their own institutions and projects that can thrive outside of capitalism,” she said. “I think there’s a lot here, and what I’m doing is part of a long tradition of people sort of surviving ridiculously complicated bureaucracies and capitalist structures.”

Thornton is the co-director of the Re-Imagining Value Action Lab in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She describes her work as “social practice engaging with the way debt affects the imagination” and “stripping financial debt of its legitimacy by questioning its basic foundations and institutions.”

You can sign up to make an appointment on the Give Me Cred site and see more of Thornton’s work — connected under her Feminist Economics Department umbrella — here. On Sunday at 2 p.m., Thornton teaches a free workshop on alt credit reports at the Detroit Public Library Main Branch. Her Detroit events are supported by ProjectArt Detroit.

Featured image courtesy of Cassie Thornton.