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February 26, 2013

A matter of time

Time-banking — the concept of giving and receiving services in equal measure — takes off in Louisville

Jennifer Turner’s move from Paducah to Louisville 11 years ago was not intended to be an act of revolution. She and her husband had merely decided to commit to the dream that haunts every unsatisfied citizen of small-town America and try a fresh start in a bigger city. Her husband’s mother had recently relocated here, making the decision that much more attractive.

“It’s a lot easier to settle in when you know somebody,” she says.

Over the next decade, Turner studied social services, worked a variety of part-time jobs, and took time off to stay at home during their daughter’s infancy. Looking back on the events of the last couple years, she marvels at the changes that have come about since she discovered the concept of time-banking.

She describes her (former) self as something of a homebody, maintaining a few close friendships and, until fairly recently, she assumed she was working toward a future where she would find a job in social work. Then, in 2010, she saw a program on PBS called “Fixing the Future.”

Organized as a travelogue from Washington to Maine, the documentary explored a handful of ways different communities were approaching the concept of the “new economy,” a term applied to a contemporary re-evaluation of economic theory. The new economy is less concerned with profit and monetary valuation and focuses more on the value the system adds to the community while conserving resources. The concept of money is recognized as an artificial standard; instead, the new economy finds true value in a community’s energy and its citizens’ quality of life, rather than their financial portfolio. Ultimately, the value of a particular outcome is based on the positive effect visited upon the community and the environment; the balance of cost to benefit avoids the consideration of monetary exchange almost entirely.

“Fixing the Future” featured profiles of a cooperative organization running a green laundry in Cleveland, Ohio, and a locally focused catering company in Austin, Texas. There was a bank in Fargo, N.D., that had maintained traditional, micro-economic lending practices in its community and had avoided the devastation of the global banking crisis. The final segment of the PBS program presented a profile of “Hour Exchange Portland,” a time-banking organization in Portland, Maine.

Time-banking is a community-based expansion of the basic concept of bartering, driven by the “time dollar,” a unit of social currency invented by Edgar S. Cahn, a lifelong social justice advocate. Early in his career, Cahn was special counsel and speechwriter for Attorney General Robert Kennedy under President John Kennedy. Shortly thereafter, he led the first national campaign against hunger and malnutrition in the United States.

In 1980, after suffering a massive heart attack, Cahn abandoned the practice of law in order to fully develop the time-bank concept. Originally designed to validate and reward the disenfranchised as they worked to rebuild their communities, the community-building aspect of the practice has recently met growing interest with citizens concerned about sustainability.

Instead of trading goods and services, members of time-bank organizations trade their time. Every hour is referred to as a “time dollar.” Once earned in service to the organization or any member, time dollars can be traded for an hour of service from any other member of the group.

The services offered or requested are posted on a message board on the website and are limited only by the imagination of the members. Common service requests include childcare, yard work, house cleaning, pet sitting, music lessons, tutoring and computer assistance, but the services offered can be as unique as any individual member.

It was a concept Jennifer Turner found compelling, and she went online to find a local chapter. Unfortunately, the closest group was in Lexington.

Undaunted, she contacted the administrator of the Lexington group, open to the possibility of joining as a remote member. Her contact at the Lexington chapter advised against this option due to the impracticality of traveling from city to city to perform services, but it was suggested that Turner start a new chapter in Louisville. Thereafter, she went to Lexington to learn how the organization works. A trip to the national conference in 2010 firmed up her resolve.

“The time commitment (to start a local chapter) was reasonable,” Turner says, so she launched a Facebook page to gauge local interest. The first meeting brought about 40 people together to learn about the concept; approximately half of them signed up as members immediately.

In the beginning, participatory exchanges were slow, but Turner found a few people among the early members who were interested in contributing to the organization in leadership roles. Designed as a nonprofit and requiring no dues, the Louisville TimeBank gives time-dollar credits to members for any approved contribution to the group.

Monthly meetings were scheduled around potluck dinners, an activity endorsed by Edgar Cahn, dubbed the father of time-banking. In his organizational materials, a booklet titled “Priceless Money: Banking Time for Changing Times,” Cahn uses the potluck concept as a metaphor for the time bank; members contribute what they can and derive a benefit from the participation of the group.

The organization is fairly generous with time-dollar credits. New members can kick-start their accounts by bringing a dish to a potluck dinner in exchange for one time-bank hour. If they come early to help set up, they will receive another credit. If they stay to clean up, they’ll receive another hour.

This level of participation points toward an essential element of the program’s social aspect. The simple trade of an hour for an hour removes the artificial, monetary aspect of the service exchange, but the social contract that derives from membership casts these interactions as contributions to a community. The spirit of friendship is undeniable. By giving members a monthly opportunity to meet one another in a group setting, TimeBank encourages individual exchanges. When the conversation starts with a consideration of individual needs and a willingness to negotiate to get those needs met, the conversation immediately takes on a productive quality.

Beth Thorpe moved from St. Louis to Louisville just a couple years ago. A massage therapist by trade with a background in major event planning, Thorpe had no support system in her new city until she began making friends through the TimeBank page on Facebook.

“The transfer of my (massage therapist) license was going to take some time,” Thorpe says, “so I helped Jennifer with the early stages of organizing the group, researching the other time banks for ways to grow.”

Thorpe’s background as a licensed professional was helpful as the leadership team made policy considerations regarding licensed services being offered through the time bank. Her background as an event planner came in handy with organizing the potluck dinners. She received time dollars for all of the time she contributed. “I may be the worst time-dollar hoarder in the group,” she admits, “but I’m sure I’ll be able to spend them sooner or later.”

Meanwhile, Turner and Thorpe have established a solid friendship.

Even Turner acknowledges, “I was very isolated before (starting the time bank). I am very connected now.”

Linda Erzinger joined the Louisville TimeBank early on, though she was unsure how it might work for her. Primarily a self-employed artist, she wondered whether there would be a demand for her professional services among the membership, and, perhaps even more importantly, she wasn’t sure she would want to offer art in exchange for time dollars. As it happens, this is a common concern, but no one is expected or required to offer any particular service.

The system works kind of like a farmers market or a food co-op: Members offer services they are willing to perform and, alternatively, request assistance with specific projects they can’t (or would rather not) handle alone.

Shortly after joining, Erzinger found several ways to take advantage of the time bank. “I’m pretty much a full-time artist,” she says. “I have to do everything, even the parts of business that I’m not good at.” Through time-banking, Erzinger found assistance with the business side of her profession. “I found a person who writes, so I am able to pursue jobs that I would turn down otherwise.”

Erzinger has also used time dollars to attend a yoga workshop, to have her house cleaned, and to see a chiropractor, but her favorite use of the exchange ended with the completion of a project that had been languishing for over a year. “I had a rain barrel in the backyard, but I never had the motivation to hook it up until I found someone at the time bank who had set one up before.”

Meanwhile, Erzinger has found a few TimeBank members who have been interested in exchanging time dollars for her artwork. The mural she painted on the wall in Kara Underwood’s son’s bedroom has become somewhat legendary among the local group. “Receiving assistance with the parts of my business that I don’t want to do leaves me more time to do the thing I love to do,” Erzinger says. “I could paint murals all day long. It’s very meditative.”

Echoing a sentiment shared by others in the group, Erzinger expresses a kind of wonder at the community-building aspect of the time bank.

“Every time I do an exchange,” she says, “I leave feeling like I’ve done work for a friend because there’s no money changing hands. I’ll offer to haul stuff and end up sitting around talking ‘off the clock.’ We’ll almost always share something real. I’ll leave thinking, ‘I just made a new friend.’ And then I’ll look forward to seeing them again at the next potluck.”

While researching this story, I attended a recent potluck dinner and sat with three new members attending their first meeting. One had heard about the group through a friend. The other two had come together. One woman looked familiar. It turned out our paths had crossed in a work environment on a somewhat regular basis for a couple years before her retirement in 2002, and we came to find out I also knew her son. We probably never had a conversation before the night of the TimeBank meeting, but we met as enthusiastic conversationalists.

The purpose of these dinners is, after all, to socialize, to share work requests and offer talents for use among the group, and the upbeat sense of positivity and possibility is undeniable.

“People always leave (the potluck dinners) energized,” Turner says. “We talk to people, set up exchanges. People are so much more likely to set up exchanges with people they have met.” But it seems to be even more than that; as diverse as the group is, with people of all ages, individuals and families, people with professional backgrounds and others working in the service industry, the shared intention is palpably liberating.

It’s hard to overlook the spirit of Christian fellowship in the open-hearted enthusiasm among the participants. It’s a common observation, according to Thorpe: “It’s like church without the theology.”

Though the TimeBank doesn’t embrace any religious doctrine, founder Edgar Cahn has included the serenity prayer in his brochure on the subject. The booklet is weighted with philosophy regarding the dignity of all individuals and the need for equal respect for the least of our citizens, echoing the teachings of Jesus quite clearly.

With this in mind, Thorpe points out that the organization is developing a “Care Committee.” Inspired by the flu season, the leadership team has created a position for a coordinator of services for members who are struck ill and need simple services like a run to the drug store or the delivery of a hot meal. Thus, the community responds to its members needs much in the same way church communities do.

Louisville TimeBank has experienced significant growth in the last couple months. The influx of members has consistently exceeded projections and expectations. This has challenged the organization’s boundaries in curious ways.

Beth Thorpe explains that the leadership team has been making an effort to troubleshoot problems before they arise, and so far they haven’t run into any major snags. In fact, she says, “Things that seemed difficult a month ago are getting done because the leadership team has grown as well. They have recently added event planning and marketing and an ethics team, which will be charged with helping members resolve any grievances that might arise from a time-bank exchange. “So far, there haven’t been any,” Thorpe says, “but there’s always the possibility.”

Next up, the group is planning the reach out to seniors in an effort to bring members of different generations together, even through something as simple as home visits. Another possibility is cooking classes: “There are a lot of cooking shows,” Thorpe says, “but they don’t teach the basics, and there are a lot of people who could benefit from learning how to prepare simple meals from someone who has done it for years and years.”

Gardening also is a major area of interest in the group, and so they are considering a seminar on the topic. Last year, one member held a gardening exchange, according to Thorpe, and had her yard cleared, tilled and framed by a group of TimeBankers in just a couple hours, a task that would have taken the homeowner weeks.

As the group continues to grow, so, too, does the opportunity for shared knowledge and service.

Though the concept of organized bartering isn’t new — nor is the time dollar, for that matter — the recent rise in popularity in time-banking is somewhat revolutionary. As a response to depressed economic circumstances, the spike in participation in organizations like Louisville TimeBank draws attention to the flaws inherent in our monetary system.

As mortgage holders and renters and customers of utility companies, we can’t realistically drop out of the monetary system, but after our bills are paid, we can invest in something more real. There is an undeniable sense of liberation that comes when we change the conversation from how much something costs to how we can help one another.

It’s like Thorpe says: “Some things are beyond money.”

For more information about the Louisville TimeBank, visit louisville.timebanks.org.

 

 

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