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Forging community in the go-it alone era

| 04 Apr 2016 | 03:28

You need help moving some heavy furniture. You want to learn French. You have a fence that needs fixing and you’re hardly a carpenter. What do you do? Maybe you call a professional. Maybe you even call a friend. But what about a neighbor? Someone you pass on your morning run? How about someone who simply lives in the same zip code as you? For most of us, this concept is on par with accepting a generous gift or having to ask for a big favor: “Oh no I couldn’t possibly…” We recoil at this breech of unspoken social convention, but maybe it’s time to transcend these taboos. The trendiest, most accessible way of doing that? Time banking.

Not one but two thriving time banks have popped up in northern New Jersey: one in West Milford and another in Newton. In New York, the Newburgh-based Hudson Valley Hour Exchange pulls members from as far away as Warwick and New Paltz.

The simplest way to define a time bank is as the swapping of services to meet the needs of those you live in community with. If you’re familiar with the “pay it forward” trend, you can think of time banking as a giant pay it forward web. The Time Bank of West Milford sums it up as “connecting unmet needs with untapped resources.” If the whole concept sounds naggingly familiar, that’s because the system has been around for as long as civilization, and used to be known simply as life. Now, we call it a time bank, an institution that has formally been around for 30-plus years.

Longtime West Milford resident and self-proclaimed hippie Tim Dalton is one of three main coordinators of his town’s time bank. When I call him up to chat, he invites me to an upcoming time bank event. But this is not just one of the regular monthly meetings that the time bank folks have. I happen to call just in time to attend the annual seed exchange-slash-potluck. A perfect snapshot of the time bank culture, the seed exchange gives me the opportunity to see firsthand the kind of community that time bankers are so excited about creating. On a Monday evening, I follow the sounds of boisterous children and the enticing scents of a potluck dinner down darkened hallways to a well-lit classroom in the Hillcrest Community Center in West Milford. The room has the feel of a PTA event, except for the seed packets laid out everywhere.

The women I sit with for the evening share their stories of getting involved. “West Milford is huge, and I would never have met these people otherwise,” said Susan Gualdarrama, reflecting on the sense of community she has found within the time bank.

I found myself wondering if there was some way of regulating the equity of exchanges. If I spend three hours knitting for someone, is it fair for me to turn around and ask someone to spend three hours moving boulders for me?

“All hours are the same. It’s a piece of your life, it’s worth as much as anyone else’s,” said Dalton. Suddenly, I don’t feel so guilty about wanting to pawn off all the yardwork I find so egregious. Time has no denominations, and it is equally valuable to everyone, so trading time is always a fair exchange — regardless of calories expended.

Several weeks later I sit down with Dalton to get the origin story of the time bank. In the wake of the 2008 recession, residents of West Milford were feeling the pinch: jobs and money were scarce. Dalton really felt that there were sustainable, resourceful ways to beat the slump. He brought this conversation to Sustainable West Milford, an established group, and they got to brainstorming. Between Dalton and Sustainable West Milford founders Dave and Wendy Watson-Hallowell, the idea for a time bank emerged. It seemed to have a lot to offer, not just as a way to combat the recession, but as a way to tie the community together, to get to know neighbors in a different way. By June 2011, West Milford had a time bank.

Two years later, in 2013, the Hudson Valley Hour Exchange came into being, inspired in part by West Milford. The Hudson Valley Hour Exchange requires each prospective member to submit two references and attend an orientation meeting before being approved to begin swapping hours. However, this is not to imply that the group is at all exclusive. They simply want an idea of what each member might be able to contribute, and how they will work in community with the other members: no one gets rejected. From there, the responsibility is on the swappers, and parties are even encouraged to seek more extensive references, depending on the services being swapped.

Gloria Bonelli is one of the founders of the group — which originally came together for the Occupy Orange County movement — and a member of the “kitchen cabinet,” the group of women who make things happen. Bonelli laments that people who have lived around the corner from each other for 20 years have never even had a conversation. An active Occupy participant, she believes strongly that the current political and economic system is not benefitting the majority. The way to combat this, she said, is for the people to take the power back into their own hands, through basic but creative community-based systems.

As of this writing, membership in the West Milford time bank was about 180. The slightly younger Hudson Valley Hour Exchange had 68 members, who together had exchanged 1,349 hours. Dalton’s goal is to grow membership by 25 to 30 percent in the future, although he is pleased that the current members are a pretty connected group.

“A lot of people involved in the time bank have gone through some personal stuff together and a lot of really strong friendships have come out of it,” he said. “That’s the really cool thing. It’s the serendipity of it.”

Those connections within the Hudson Valley Hour Exchange helped the surrounding communities make it through a particularly trying time. When Superstorm Sandy hit in mid-October 2012, the fledgling group decided to collect food and supplies to bring to the Occupy Sandy Headquarters in Brooklyn. This initiative was spearheaded by Bonelli and Toni Mazzella, whom Bonelli calls the driving force of the hour exchange, “the one with the drive, the fire, the creativity, and the energy that keeps us going.” Cooking and distributing food and supplies during the storm set a precedent for the hour exchange. At present, five or six women get together every other week to cook meals for the Hope Drop-In Center in Newburgh. Members of the hour exchange also link up with SOUPers, a program that makes hearty, freezer-friendly meals to provide for those who are food insecure throughout the winter months.

It’s this kind of regular, habitual connection that strengthens community and provides a strong foundation for the hour exchange. Starting one can be exciting, but keeping a time bank up and running is tough. A glance at timebanks.org, which lists groups all over the world, suggests that about half of community time banks are basically defunct, with no exchanges in the last year.

Of the 180 members of the West Milford Time Bank, only six to eight are active enough to help manage the database and coordinate meetings. A lot of registered time bankers have “gone into the red,” meaning they have no time bank credit. Dalton says this is not a big deal — they won’t be kicked out for it. But, naturally, the more active members, the better. Dalton would like to see someone go through the whole time bank roster and follow up with people who have been inactive for a while, but normally finding a volunteer with the time to do it is another story. When Dirt touched base with Dalton in November, though, the time bank had just secured a dedicated volunteer through a partnership with the state’s Family Success Center, a likeminded agency that had just come to town. The time bank was about to revamp its website, said Dalton. He was fired up from a conference he’d just attended called Platform Cooperativism, a sort of worldwide gathering of hippie-techies, billed as “a coming-out party for the cooperative internet.”

Cooperation. It takes people a while to wrap their head around the concept because of what Dalton calls the “rugged individualism” that dominates the modern mindset. “People are used to doing things on their own.” Bonelli, too, has found that while members are quick to put out offers, they are often hesitant to make requests. Her take on this is that people are ashamed to ask for help; we are taught that the only way to be is self-sufficient.

We have forgotten that in asking for help, there lies power. Over the course of my time bank education, it became clear to me that time banking is about much more than getting your chores done the easy way. It is part of a much larger movement for alternative solutions to really big problems.

“We have no concept of solving economic or social issues because we don’t know how to organize. It’s been beaten out of us,” said Dalton. “A lot of people are searching for alternatives and they’re not finding them in the news or on TV, so they’re making it up themselves.”

The time bank model can pave the way toward community decision making, participatory budgeting, being prepared for the transition to a low carbon economy. It can build community resilience in the face of challenges like climate change. But before resilience must come talking to each other, and with that, time banks are a great place to start. They are not, however, an end unto themselves.

When I asked Bonelli about her goal for the hour exchange, her answer was unexpected: “The ideal situation is that in the future, time banking doesn’t have to exist at all,” she said. Why? Because no time banks would indicate that strong, interconnected communities have become the norm. In the meantime, they’re a good thing to have around.

“If there’s a zombie apocalypse, what are you going to do?,” Bonelli asked. “You’re going to get together with your time bank people.”