TimeBanking:  A Beautiful Solution to Burnout and Isolation

by Alice Bagley

Coordinator of Unity in Our Community TimeBank

Whenever I am invited to talk about the work I do with Unity in Our Community TimeBank, I start this way: “TimeBanking is a way for people to exchange services using hours, rather than money, as the unit of exchange.” But maybe I should start with, “TimeBanking is a Syrian immigrant teaching her neighbors how to make falafel,” or “TimeBanking is a young person shoveling snow for a senior,” or “TimeBanking is a first generation college student getting into their school of choice thanks to ACT test prep.”

TimeBanking is a way to value the contributions of all the people working with us on projects, community building, and movements, while also radically changing the way we assess the value of each other’s contributions. When you provide a service for another TimeBank member for an hour, you log that time and then get exactly an hour back in the form of another service. These services can be anything, as long as they can be measured in time.

There are five core TimeBanking principles: assets, redefining work, social networks, reciprocity, and respect. Though each TimeBank is part of an international movement of time-based exchanges, each will be different in the way it organizes itself and works towards these ideals.  

Too often people are looking to “help” or “save” Detroit neighborhoods, without concentrating on the assets that we already have here, which are our people. The most popular events organized by Unity in Our Community TimeBank are our cooking classes. These routinely draw folks from other TimeBanks in the suburbs, and are sponsored in part by Welcoming Michigan, an organization that seeks to make communities more welcoming to immigrants. These cooking classes not only focus on learning to make a dish, but also the immigration or migration story of the chef’s family, and how food reflects that.

Our community is full of skilled trades people, lawyers, writers, farmers, caretakers, mechanics and folks with countless other skills. When we concentrate on what we have, rather than what we lack, we can better work together and accomplish more.

The money economy has a funny way of valuing and defining work. We consider it to be work when someone serves food to strangers in a restaurant, but not when they serve food to their friends and neighbors. We consider it work when someone in a robe with a gavel helps to solve a dispute, but not when a trusted community member mediates a conflict. TimeBanking asks us to define work as anything that we do for another that takes time, and to value it all equally.

Because our TimeBank is hosted by Bridging Communities, a nonprofit dedicated to helping elders age within their communities, many of the hours logged in our TimeBank relate to elder care. These hours are often for things like friendly phone calls, accompanying folks to doctors’ appointments, or dropping by for a visit. We are learning now that isolation brings about serious mental and physical health problems, but our money economy still doesn’t recognize and value visits or social support as work. Through the TimeBank, we can redefine work to include creating community, visiting our elders, and anything else that we can measure in time.

A few years ago, I had another TimeBank member knit a scarf/hood for me. For her, this was enjoyable and she expressed feeling “bad” that it took so much time and therefore so many hours from my account. To me this custom-knitted item was of great value, and I was so grateful to have an item of clothing I could easily wear with my bike helmet in the cold weather. TimeBanking helps us to see the value of not just the work of others, but also ourselves.

The exchanges in a TimeBank ultimately rely on our trust of the social networks that underlie it. Joining Unity in Our Community TimeBank is open to anyone with a connection to the Southwest Detroit community.  All that we ask is that you do an in-person orientation to start so that we get to know you and you can ask any questions about the TimeBank. It is then up to the members themselves to build relationships, references, and trust through exchanges. No background check, certification, or license can replace the proof of showing up for community.

While many TimeBank exchanges are arranged through listings on our website, they often start with an in-person meeting at one of our social events. We have monthly game nights for families, a monthly happy hour, and many other events that allow people to enjoy themselves and get to know each other. This way when you see on the TimeBank website that “Hala would like to learn to sew,” you can remember that you met her at the coffee hour event a few weeks ago.

Social networks and trust are also built through work. Southwest Detroit is a diverse and changing community, with a large immigrant population.  When one of our Yemeni members had their garage burned down by arsonists, damaging a large portion of their house in the process, members of all backgrounds came together to help clean up the rubble so they weren’t hit with a blight fine. Through the process, new relationships were built. Nothing helps you get to know someone better than carrying a large load together. We have crews of youth of many backgrounds shoveling snow for elders this winter. It’s harder to fear young people of a different faith once they’ve lovingly swept the snow from your porch steps.

One of the most radical aspects of TimeBanking is the principle of reciprocity. Too often we divide folks in society into being either givers or takers. We assume that those who are very old, young, sick, or disabled have nothing to offer us, and that folks with a lot of money or other resources will never need anything. As such, we don’t ask anything of those “takers,” leaving their important wisdom and skills untapped. We also tend not to offer help to those who are the “givers,” which leads to burnout and health problems among generous members of our community.

One of our members had for years been organizing and hosting our monthly game night —  a wonderful community-building event that members can bring their children to. When she and her husband bought a new house and an adjacent  building, the yard between the two properties needed a lot of work. Suddenly someone who had only been a “giver” in our TimeBank had a need that the TimeBank could easily fill. The TimeBank held a work day at her house, and now in the summer the monthly game nights are held in her new, beautified yard.

While reciprocity is incredibly important, it has to be paired with respect for all our members. When we talk about respect, we mean deep respect — respecting that where people are right now is enough and exactly where they are supposed to be. Recognizing that people will contribute to our community in many different ways,  and that all those contributions are valued. The money economy trains us well to value and respect certain types of work more than others, and therefore certain people more than others.

Many activists and folks doing community work do a lot of work for “free” and also others to do the same. Even when we organizers want to compensate people for their time, we all know that revolutionary work is not going to be properly funded. By using the TimeBank to record the time people spend contributing to community, we are letting them know in a symbolic and concrete way that the work they do is valued and important.

To learn more about, and join, Unity in Our Community TimeBank,  go to www.southwestdetroittimebank.org or call 313-451-0135.   For information on other Michigan TimeBanks or to get support starting your own, check out the Michigan Alliance of TimeBanks at www.mitimebanks.org/ or call 248-424-7455

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