On a Saturday night at the Lewisham Big Screen near All Saints Church, dozens of locals of all ages assemble to discuss a community initiative.
They discuss about neighbourhood services and values however this is far from a Council meeting. It is a chance for locals to learn about Time Banks UK, the British wing of an online international organisation that enables community labour to be paid in Hours. The Lewisham group represents just one of nearly 300 UK chapters of the organisation.
Time Banks UK stems from an American parent organization, Time Bank, founded by Edgar Cahn, a self-proclaimed social justice crusader and London School of Economics law fellow who helped establish the National Legal Services program for impoverished Americans. “The work of Time Bank is far from a part of the GDP,” says Cahn who visits Britain each year to get involved with local Time Banking initiatives.
The system he created aims to be simple however effective. Tutoring a neighbourhood child for an hour in math or music, for instance, might earn one Hour, which may then be redeemed for other services, like having a garden pruned.
Going beyond exclusively economic solutions, Time Banking is an attempt to embrace productive values that energise communities and emphasise human connection. It encompasses some basic societal tenets that seem to have been demoted in the era of big business: family and neighbourhood-building, and caring for the elderly and the environment. All labour is valued equally (and is thus non-taxable), ensuring that all skills and contributions are looked upon. “There’s a basic human need to feel that our being on this planet can make a difference to others,” says Cahn of the egalitarian system.
Time Banking, for instance, empowers senior citizens in wheelchairs to earn Hours by filling envelopes. Cahn, 77, came up with the concept for the alternative valuation system after dealing with a heart condition in 1980. Today, his heart is 80 percent healed, which he attributes to the compassionate and philanthropic spirit that his ‘care currency’ fosters. Activity is clearly a necessary remedy for challenging times. He encourages individuals to activate their communities by taking it upon themselves to begin bartering valuable services where it counts, in their own backyards.
Philippe Granger, who arrived in the UK from France in 1974, is the Development Manager of the Rushey Green Time Bank in Catford. Along with his wife, he has been involved in community in South London for over 25 years. He praises the community spirit fostered through the Time Banking activity.
“[Time Bank] provides stimulation for people to be active, connected and support each other in the neighbourhood,” he says. “It also raises self-confidence and self-esteem; as members are all equal, it supports to build community cohesion by capitalising on diversity.”
Beyond informal in-community exchanges, the traditional system of barter has significantly expanded in scope, and been upgraded thanks in small part to the Internet.
Sites like Barter Buddies call on web surfers to ‘barter for services and goods in your community.’ Other swap hubs like U-Exchange’s UK barter network play up the gratis angle, boasting ‘trade anything, pay nothing.’ In addition, international online business-oriented sites International Monetary Systems and ITEX have reported notable increases in transactions and memberships. “The Internet and computers radically reduce the technology needed to create trust,” says Cahn.
Evidenced by the finanical challenges and concomitant ethical matters, both values and trust need to be rebuilt, some might posit, from the ground up. Barter, cooperatives and new community-based initiatives seem to be the ideal launching pads.
How might local communities benefit from the barter system?