By Bailey Mead, Praxis Managing Editor
In this new political climate which brings daily assaults to the vitality of our communities and the safety and wellbeing of ourselves and our neighbors, knowing who you can trust and who you can call on feels more important than ever before. We’ve seen our neighbors terrorized in recent weeks by ICE raids and the Muslim Ban during just the first month of the Trump administration. In this time when many may be afraid to take bold actions to protect their neighbors, it is imperative to build solidarity between communities, and especially with immigrant communities. We need each other, but what if we don’t know each other? Or maybe we know each other, but how do we begin to work together? Our survival requires active resistance, but our future requires us to simultaneously build resilience and create sustainable new ways of being that allow all of us to live and thrive. We know that effective resistance requires connection, and connection helps build resilience. So how do we truly connect?
TimeBanks, an alternative currency model that helps create strong community relationships, are active in at least 34 countries throughout the world. TimeBanking reinforces the inherent and equal value of every person and allows people to access services they might not otherwise afford. It is not bartering, which is subject to income tax, but rather a circle of giving or a skill exchange.
A TimeBank consists of members who agree to exchange services – individuals, organizations and businesses can all be members. You do something for someone else for an hour and you earn an hour time credit to spend later on a service from anyone in the TimeBank. For example, if you drive someone to the airport, you earn an hour of credit, which you can then spend by having someone mow your lawn. That person who mowed your lawn will also earn an hour credit and can spend it getting their computer fixed. TimeBanks foster a culture and cycle of ongoing reciprocity; the concept is simple but the implications are huge.
Our ancestors knew that cooperation and exchange were essential to health and survival, but the legacy of colonialism, capitalism and racism has left us so isolated from each that we often don’t even know our neighbors. Building on this ancestral knowledge about the strength of community and the work of 19th century socialists who introduced time-based currencies, Edgar Cahn, former legal counsel and speechwriter to Robert F. Kennedy, formalized the idea of TimeBanking in his book, Time Dollars: The New Currency That Enables Americans to Turn Their Hidden Resource-Time-Into Personal Security & Community Renewal, a book co-authored with Jonathan Rowe in 1992. He also introduced five core values of TimeBanking in his book, No More Throwaway People:
- Asset: Every one of us has something of value to share with someone else.
- Redefining Work: There are some forms of work that money will not easily pay for, like building strong families, revitalizing neighborhoods, making democracy work, advancing social justice. Time credits were designed to reward, recognize and honor that work.
- Reciprocity: Helping that works as a two-way street empowers everyone involved – the receiver as well as the giver. The question: “How can I help you?” needs to change so we ask: “Will you help someone too?” Paying it forward ensures that, together, we help each other build the world we all will live in.
- Social Networks: Helping each other, we reweave communities of support, strength & trust. Community is built by sinking roots, building trust, creating networks. By using timebanking, we can strengthen and support these activities.
- Respect: Respect underlies freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and everything we value. Respect supplies the heart and soul of democracy. We strive to respect where people are in the moment, not where we hope they will be at some future point.
I first learned about TimeBanking almost a decade ago when I met Kim Hodge, former labor organizer and Executive Director of the MI Alliance of TimeBanks. I worked at the Area Agency on Aging and she wanted to explore the possibility of integrating a TimeBank into the aging services network in southeast Michigan. While that particular TimeBank never got any traction, I was intrigued by the concept and the possibilities for my own Southwest Detroit neighborhood, home to a large immigrant population where the average household income is lower than the rest of Detroit. I was involved in our community garden and knew many of the neighbors on my own block, but didn’t know many of them well. Our Hubbard Farms neighborhood had an email listserv where we shared information about everything from local crime and negligent suburban landlords to cultural events, politics, and annual strolling dinners. We were connected, but at least in my case, I didn’t feel like we had meaningful relationships. Kim knew another woman in my neighborhood who was interested in starting a TimeBank. The three of us met and very slowly began to organize the Southwest Detroit TimeBank in 2009, which is now called Unity in Our Community and has grown to 690 members.
The beginning was slow, full of stops and starts, but it wasn’t long before we assembled a “Kitchen Cabinet” to lead the TimeBank. We elected a treasurer and a secretary, collected $20 from each person to print business cards, put up a website, and subscribed to hOurworld, software specifically designed to track TimeBank hours. In hOurworld, members can set up profile pages and list offers and requests, which can be scrolled through by other members. When someone offers to perform a service, the two members negotiate how it will be done and how much time it is likely to take. In order to assure accountability, the member performing the service logs the time, and the member receiving the service has to approve it before the time credit is transferred from one account to the other. If the service has not been performed as expected or did not take as much time as the giver indicated, they can negotiate how to make it right. However, because the nature of TimeBank transactions are relational rather than consumerist, problems like this rarely arise. When they do, the TimeBank leadership is there to help mediate the situation.
Instead, when starting the Southwest Detroit TimeBank, we found ourselves faced with other challenges. It turns out that people have a really hard time asking for and accepting help. While we had many offers, we had very few takers. On top of that, when a TimeBank first begins, there are typically only a handful of members so the offers are not very diverse. In our case, all of our original members had to commit to taking each other up on one or two offers every week so that we could begin to earn time credits and get experience TimeBanking.
To help us grow, we also employed another common practice in TimeBanking, allowing members to earn credit for attending meetings, handing out flyers or recruiting new members. We began holding group events and inviting neighbors. We held a BBQ at the park and a group painting party at the home of two retired nuns, both Kitchen Cabinet members, and together painted the walls of their entryway and front room. Another member offered Mexican cooking classes. These kinds of group projects gave us opportunities to introduce new people to our TimeBank and we slowly began to grow.
Within a few years, the TimeBank had grown to 150 members, which is the number recommended for a group with enough diversity in skills to keep people engaged. Bridging Communities, a nonprofit serving seniors in Southwest Detroit, agreed to host the TimeBank and dedicate staff time to it. This made all the difference for our future. Finding a host organization is an important step for sustainability with any TimeBank. It not only makes it possible to seek grant funding, but because volunteer leaders eventually tire out or move on, a paid staff position insures consistency and stability.
In 2012, when I moved across the state to Kalamazoo, I sought out the small local TimeBank, but it ceased to operate soon after I arrived. Like many volunteer-run start-ups, a short life span is common, and it is the reason that the MI Alliance of Timebanks exists: to offer support, training and connection to TimeBanks and to share best practices for start-ups.
Fortunately, the Unity in Our Community TimeBank has continued to grow and make a tangible difference in members’ lives. For example, a mechanic joined the time bank, making car repairs accessible to those who might otherwise be stranded in a city with unreliable public transportation. Members also recently helped Musid Ali rebuild his house after his family of twelve survived a house fire as a result of arson. These are just a couple examples of the more than 25,000 hours members have exchanged with each other since the TimeBank began. Early on, the neighborhood health clinic joined, creating the possibility for uninsured and/or undocumented members to access health care using time credits, but I was disappointed to learn that they never became a fully active member in the TimeBank.
TimeBanks can be a way of meeting basic needs, but they can also be a way of building skills. Say you have always wanted to start a catering service, but you want to give it a try before launching a business. You could offer to cater a party or teach a cooking class and see how you like it. Or maybe you have always wanted to learn Spanish. You can spend your time credits taking classes or being tutored by another member.
An especially humanizing aspect of TimeBanking is the common agreement that everyone’s hour has the same value, and that people of all ages and abilities are valued equally. A physician’s hour spent performing a physical exam is worth the same as a child’s hour spent pulling dandelions from someone’s lawn. An accountant’s time spent preparing taxes is worth the same as someone’s time spent returning bottles for refunds. All work is valued equally, based on a negotiation between giver and receiver. This redefinition of work breaks down class constructs and turns the capitalist idea of work on its head.
Another benefit is that TimeBanks value the contributions of senior citizens. In a society that assigns human value to a person’s ability to produce, older adults are burdened with a diminished perception of their worth. When this is internalized in combination with social isolation, and a decreased physical ability to perform household work, many elders succumb to depression and illness. In a TimeBank, the inherent value and wisdom of our elders can be received and valued while allowing them to access necessary services they can no longer physically perform themselves. For example, they can teach skills like knitting or reading in exchange for window washing, oven cleaning, or home repairs. It may even be possible to earn and save time credits as a way of preparing for retirement.
Beyond members exchanging services with each other, TimeBanks are responding in creative ways to local needs and connecting members in personal ways to global issues. The Pontiac Sun TimeBank in Pontiac, Michigan is working on an innovative project with the local hospital. “Many patients need follow-up care after being discharged from the hospital,” Kim Hodge explained. “Whether this is a ride home, shopping and cooking, or friendly calls to check on them, TimeBank members can provide those services.” She also said, “A member of the Lathrup Village TimeBank whose relatives were being killed in Syria offered a class to educate other members about what was happening there.”
Perhaps the most powerful reason for TimeBanking is the real strength and safety in knowing and trusting your neighbors. It takes vulnerability and openness to let someone help you, and the reward is getting to really know and trust each other. In my case, I was reluctant to let strangers into my home. So, if I didn’t know someone, I began by asking for help with things like mowing the lawn or teaching me something at the local coffeehouse. Also, as an introvert, I found that it took real effort to interact with new people, but it was well worth it. At the very least, people who know each other are less afraid of each other, less likely to call the police on each other, and less likely to vote and act against each other’s interests. On a practical level, you know who to call when your car battery is dead or you want to borrow a tool. At best, you build nurturing relationships and begin to work together to make your neighborhood and your community become a better place. For instance, in the Unity in Our Community TimeBank, members can earn time credits for working with Welcoming Michigan, an immigrant rights organization.
For every benefit of TimeBanking, there are questions about things like liability, reliability, and trustworthiness. Hodge says, “TimeBanks just don’t attract the kinds of people that are looking to pull one over on anyone. You have to do your own gut-check, just like you would if you were hiring anyone to come into your home and perform a service. In the years that the MI Alliance of TimeBanks has been in operation, we have not heard of a single issue with liability.” She said, “the single biggest challenge is keeping people engaged and in the habit of asking each other for help. Most successful TimeBanks have a dedicated organizer who knows the members and reaches out to make matches between people’s offers and requests.”
These are just a few of the possibilities and examples of TimeBanking, but communities across the globe are creating new ways to use this model every day. The time is ripe for finding ways to lessen our dependence on consumerism and strengthen our connection to each other.