Events Foster Exchanges

Three out of four Americans don’t know their next door neighbor; for most of my adult life, I haven’t been able to pick mine out on the street, let alone tell you their names. And so many people confess to feeling disconnected, isolated and lonely- so many, in fact, that they could form a giant club if only they were motivated to.

There are a lot of factors that contribute to that isolation, from societal systems and the commodity economy to the internet and psychology. And though I find those topics fascinating (and worthy of exploration), I am more focused on those things we can do in our daily lives to combat the phenomenon. To that end, I read and absorb the conclusions of the researchers and then distill them through my own experiences to share with you on this blog.

I joined my local time bank in October 2014, 4 months prior to this writing. At first, I was disappointed at what I perceived to be slow responses and a lack of activity, even though I knew that the website transfer my time bank was undergoing was going to have an impact on exchanges. It turns out it had a major impact, and took longer than originally foreseen by the committee. There was even a significant delay in accepting new members, a situation I found frustrating as I longed to spread the word and encourage time bank participation in my own network. But, as with most things, patience was rewarded and I am happy to announce progress on all fronts! The Arroyo SECO Network of Time Banks is once again accepting new members and I’ve had several successful and fruitful exchanges with existing members!

After my initial offers of services went unfulfilled, I briefly wondered whether the fact that I was a new, unknown member might cause folks to hesitate before exchanging with me (the website transfer and general flakiness on the part of Angelenos being alternative reasons). Eager to meet some of the people who have already been using and supporting the time bank, I attended an all-member potluck where I met about a dozen members (though none from my own neighborhood). A month later, I signed up to be a vendor at a Holiday Craft Fair, held at the same location as the potluck, the LA Ecovillage. time bank signI offered my upcycled ashtray tins and my I ♥ LA stickers, and sold several for a combination of TD$ for labor and federal $ for materials.

I met several more members, including two with whom I went to have more exchanges! Fred bought some stickers, and a few weeks later used my printer to print out some documents. I bought jams from Chris, and then she came to a yard sale I helped a friend hold a few weeks later. She scored a lot of great items, and after the sale was over, I gave her a bunch more. Then I bought more jams from her (they’re delicious and also a fund-raiser for the AIDS Ride she participates in every year), which were my Christmas presents for my family.

Recently, I asked my Facebook network if anyone had a wedding gown they’d be willing to give me for an event I’ll be attending soon. Chris immediately offered up one she had in her costume closet! In the few months I’ve known her, we’ve become friends through these exchanges (only the first of which was recorded on the official time bank system), and I have no doubt there will be more giving and sharing between us in the future!

I see time banking as a great way to bridge the divide between feeling isolated and disconnected to feeling connected to your neighbors and therefore your community. For those of us who have shy moments, it offers a loose structure that can really facilitate connections. The service you give (or receive) is the seed for the initial interaction and it provides a conversation-starter. There is now at least a slight, budding relationship where before there were only two strangers, and that provides a shared ground that is far more solid than just geography.

Using the time bank also makes connection easier by removing some, though not all, of the risk. Through the website, you’re able to see whether the person you’re dealing with has had a lot of positive interactions recorded on their profile. Everyone who joins provides a personal reference who is contacted for a review of the person, so there is a semblance of screening. However, the initial exchanges are largely a matter of trust. The more exchanges a person does, the more they are recorded in the social memory of the time bank, ensuring that my good deed here will get me a service later and that it won’t just be lost to the ether the way it can often feel in modern city life. Thanks to the time bank, being an honest, genuine and reliable person leads to visible public affirmation and that, in itself, is a wonderful thing! The cynics may say that nice guys finish last, but I say that honoring and rewarding positive qualities encourages them.

Today I had my first non-event-based exchange, which involved giving a ride to the metro station to a woman named Lori, who is visiting a time bank member named Heather (who actually does live in my neighborhood, though we’ve yet to meet in person). Lori lives in St. Petersburg, FL and by the end of our short ride, she had offered me a place to stay should I ever decide to visit that area! Beyond that new friend gained, I also got 1 TD$ from Heather for the ride, and a connection to her so that whenever we meet in person in the future, we’ve already got our common ground established. I definitely feel like I came out ahead on that deal.

An Attitude Of Abundance

“We currently live in a society that embraces an attitude of scarcity and through time banking, it becomes clear we live in a world of abundance, and that all we need is an attitude shift.”

I suppose you could say I was well-primed to receive the message aimed at me during the new member orientation for the Arroyo SECO Time Bank. This was far from my first exposure to the resource-sharing economy, but, even so, it felt like a whole new level of participation. It went beyond the feeling that comes from sharing excess tangibles on LAReUseIt and craigslist. It even surpassed my experiences with ride-sharing, on road trips and more formally with Lyft and UberX. The few times I had hosted events at my home for the Peers.org folks came close to it, as did, upon reflection, my experiences at Burning Man. But by the end of this meeting, the feeling of community and the sense of what they, we, could accomplish together was both as humbling and inspiring as I have ever known.

It started just as one would expect after reading through the group’s website. I was the first to arrive, and John and Lee welcomed me warmly as I entered the conference room. They took a divide-and-conquer approach. Lee typed away on a tablet, getting my online profile activated, adding me to some mailing lists and paying me 1 time dollar for attending the orientation. Meanwhile, John spoke with me about which neighborhood I live in, what led me to join the time bank and what I might be interested in offering as a service. They repeated this process with the other 4 attendees as they arrived, while I noted that all 5 of us were in the mid-20s – upper 30s age range, while I estimated John and Lee to be in their 50s/60s. We were 4 women and 1 man, and the man, Mark, is actually already a member and I was in the restroom when it was explained why he was attending this session. After I returned, we began the meeting by sharing our names, neighborhoods and interests in time banking with each other. Then our attention turned to John and the screen behind him.

Within the first few minutes of the official meeting, John laid out the five core values of the Time Bank, and I was blown away by how closely they align with my own personal views of the world. To have concepts I already hold to be true stated so casually reminded me that there are many people in the world who also feel this way! Another pocket of community found!

The 5 Core Values of Time Banking:

Core Values

Using the time bank is fairly straight-forward process, one that I’ll devote a future blog post to, but for now here’s a quick summary: I have a skill I am willing to give, and so I post it on the bank’s forum, under the appropriate category. For example, I have been known to enjoy driving people around, and so I could post an offer to give rides around town. People who need rides can message me through the post and we can discuss the exchange. In most cases, once we work out a good time for both of us, the exchange would result in 1 time dollar for each hour of service. If it is a long trip, I can and should ask them to pitch in real dollars for gas, and we can agree to that in advance. If I’m not available to take them when they need, or if I just don’t want to, I’m not obligated to do the service, though the community guidelines say I should make sure to reply to all messages received. In their words, a reply equals respect.

In all likelihood, I’ll perform the service for them, and then one of us will record the exchange on the website. My account will receive payment in time dollars from their account, and now I have time dollars to spend on getting a service from someone else! It can be anything from baking a cake to yard work to computer help to car help from a mechanic. Regardless of the skill level involved in the task, 1 hour = 1 time dollar. There are no double hours, or higher rates, ever. Those who feel their time or skill is worth more than someone else may find the adjustment difficult at first, but there are ways of mitigating that. For example, someone who is a lawyer in the cash economy may decide to offer gardening help instead of legal help, or might limit how many community members they give legal help to so that they don’t feel burdened or short-changed. There is an emphasis on only offering what you want to offer, and also on the idea that receiving is as important as giving. They even support accruing occasional debt, if a service you want costs more than you have in your account. I plan to explore this concept, and its implications, more fully in another post, but, in the world of time banking, “it’s ok to go into the red.”

So how will I spend my time dollars? What services will I receive? What other services will I offer? A relatively light search of the recent offers and requests on the site yielded several promising exchanges for me, such as: a neighbor who has “a large pile of thrift store donations that need taking” and no car; a woman in Echo Park who can teach me book-binding (so I can finally repair a crumbling scrapbook); a Craft Club; the Repair Café (where you can bring items needing repair) and, naturally, several people who need rides. I hope to be able to report on my immersion within the next few weeks, as I swim farther from the shores of the conventional cash economy (while still keeping them in sight, as time-banking is meant to be a parallel economy, not a total replacement).

In the mean time, you can join me! Find your local time bank using this directory and get yourself started! Much as I would love for you all to join my time bank, it wouldn’t make sense (unless you happen to live near me). Time banking is, for the most part, decentralized and local-focused and, in some ways it has to be. One of its main goals is community building and bringing neighbors together to forge bonds of trust, and trust is mostly easily built and sustained through interpersonal interactions. So look up your local time bank and finally get to know your neighbors!

And if you’d like to know more about the history of time banks, the crowd-sourced wiki is a good place to start. The timebanks.org site is not working at the time of this publication, but hopefully they will have it back up and running again very soon, because it was a very useful research resource.