Twelve months ago, a group of Santa Fe volunteers, excited about the opportunity to help their city transition through the economic shift and reweave community in the process, launched a Time Bank. In a town known for its mañana attitude, the response has been phenomenal. Could this be the beginning of a new way of life?
Time Banks are the brainchild of Dr. Edgar S. Cahn, a Yale-trained lawyer who cofounded the National Legal Services Program and founded the Antioch Schoolof Law. In 1980, while recuperating from a heart attack, Cahn thought up the concept of Time Dollars as a way to redress the chronic lack of funds availableto solve important social problems. If money was getting in the way of fulfilling needs, he reasoned, why not just make up a new currency?
Time Dollars are based on the idea that everybody's hour is equal. When I do one hour's worth of work for Joy, I earn one Time Dollar to spend with Bob or Adrienne or Genevieve. What can be exchanged within a Time Bank is only limited by the services its members offer. It's similar to barter, except that I don't have to find an immediate match for my exchange. (Time Dollars are held intrust by the software that engines the whole thing.) And it's different from barter in that it's based on time and not cash value, which is why the IRS doesn't tax Time Bank exchanges. Additionally, Time Banks can be broad or narrow in their scope. There are examples of Time Banks that service specific populations, like people with disabilities, as well as specific missions, like church groups.
As we help people learn about Time Banking, the idea that seems to trip them upthe most is that everybody's hour is equal. I can't tell you how many times people have asked me how many Time Dollars they should "charge" for their service, even when they understand the simple agreement that one hour equals one time dollar. Sometimes that equation doesn't feel like enough, especially if they have a clear understanding of what their service could earn within the cash economy. It's not a problem if a plumber or dentist or accountant doesn't feel comfortable offering their particularly valuable job skill on the TimeBank; we simply encourage them to offer different services.
Equally often, many people's instinct is to undervalue their work. In one case, a woman was asked to make a prom dress and determined that it would take forty hours to do so, but felt uncomfortable with what seemed to her to be such a "high price." It could be that she had an underlying infertiority complex that disallowed her from equating her time and talents with another person's, but I'm sure there were other forces at work as well, not least of which is the way we value goods and services in this country. In an economy flush with cheap labor from oversees, the prices of prom dresses, out-of-season strawberries, etc., are kept artifically low. We simply don't understand the real value of things anymore. Time Banking helps remind us of what our goods and services costs us in human terms.
Time Banks also do a good job of reweaving community ties. Because our Time Bank exists alongside a cash economy, where we pay for our plumbers, dentists, and accountants, people turn to the Time Bank for the smaller interactions that make us neighbors, friends and, ultimately, communities — things like picking up the mail, walking the dog, or showing up with a pot of chicken soup when someone's sick. These types of trades used to happen all the time and they forged bonds that were valuable because they were necessary to get along. Nowadays, when Whole Foods does our cooking, canine day care operations take over the exercising, and the Internet solves the rest, we're hard pressed to find time to introduce ourselves to the neighbors, let alone exchange anything with them. Time Banking becomes a set of training wheels that helps to re-knit cohesive communities.
In The Ascent of Humanity, Charles Eisenstein talks about how our ideas about separation have contributed to this culture of isolation as well as how to heal it. He argues that we must remember and embrace a "gift culture," in which our personal gifts are expressed and shared freely. Basically, gift culture says that if we do what our hearts long to doand everybody else does too, the rest will take care of itself. Reciprocity is ensured by our trust in the inherently generous nature of the universe. While I subscribe to this idea, I think that Time Banks and organizations like it help people transition to that level of trust.
Why might it be hard to trust in the generous nature of the universe? Another way to say that a culture is organized around separation to say that it is traumatized. According to trauma-author Peter Levine, of Waking the Tiger fame, one of trauma's major characteristics is freezing, or immobility and numbness. It's not that much of a stretch to view the typical suburban American household in this way, where each family is sequestered in their own locked house, afraid to let their children go outside to play or to interact with their neighbors. Breaking trauma patterns isn't easy, but organizations that provide relatively safe arenas for interaction can surely help.
Of course, Time Banks can also serve economic functions, especially in times of crisis. By reducing the need to pay for every little service we need, money is freed up for things that operate exclusively within the cash economy. In Santa Fe, we're also hoping to enroll businesses in the Time Bank. We're not there yet, but we envision member restaurants offering a percentage off of their prices for Time Bankers in exchange for helping with inventory or whatever else they might need. The same goes for beloved venues like the Lensic, the Santa Fe Opera and any other business that might like to lower their own costs and participate more closely with their community.
In Portland, ME, where the Portland Hour Exchange (PHE), is 15 years old and 600+members strong, healthcare is the most utilized service, presumably helping to make up at least some of the insurance gap. They've also embraced their role as an incubator for small businesses, providing the introductions for scores of massage therapists, interior decorators, handymen, etc., to develop crucial client lists as they first start out. We see these models as being a great fitfor Santa Fe or any town where the entrepreneureal spirit is strong.
In one fascinating case study, the PHE received a grant to weatherize one home. Thinking ahead, they used the opportunity to train a coordinator in weatherization instead, who then trained a weatherization team, which then began to offer weatherization services for Hour Exchangers. Members have to pay for materials, but may use Hours for the rest. At least one team member has gone on to be hired as skilled labor by an outside weatherization business. It's a great example of how Time Banking can help cushion the fall during bleaker economic times and grease the wheels of change in the meanwhile.
Launched last January, Santa Fe's Time Bank has since grown to have over one hundred members, with more signing up every week. Peoples' eyes simply light up when they hear about Time Banking — and I know why. The truth is, we're hungry for new ways of living and relating to each other. We want to know each other and share in each others lives. We feel our interconnectedness. And the organizations that help us to realize it are welcome.
Image by miheco, courtesy of Creative Commons license.