By Ruth Conniff
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As things go from bad to worse in Wisconsin and other states, with massive cuts to schools, medical care, voter rights, and, as of last night in Wisconsin, the Earned Income Tax Credit, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.
It's a full-time job just to keep up with the coordinated assault on our democracy, our rights, our kids' future, and basic human services that make people's lives livable.
That's why gathering with people who have creative ideas and a ton of energy to help build a better world is both a relief and a big dose of inspiration.
Last night, across the street from the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, a group of progressives gathered in the boardroom of a large bank to talk about hopeful alternatives to the Republican model of budget slashing, inequality, and destruction.
The host was the Dane County TimeBank. TimeBanks--where people from all walks of life exchange goods and services in a non-monetary economy of mutual aid--are the brainchild of Edgar Cahn, who flew to Madison from Washington, DC, to join the conversation. Cahn started his career as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, joined the "War on Poverty" and co-founded Legal Services as well as the Antioch law school. But the project closest to his heart is TimeBanking.
Back when he was doing his War on Poverty work, Cahn says, "We were really focusing on how people were victims and what was wrong with them. That was a very partial view."
In 1980, Cahn had a massive heart attack. His close brush with death focused his attention on what was important to him. "For me, being alive was making a difference in other people's lives," he says.
He is not alone. Research shows that happiness is closely tied to social connectedness.
TimeBanking--which several speakers compare to an old-fashioned barn-raising--builds community through reciprocal giving. Whether members of a TimeBank walk dogs, babysit, do construction work, or serve as jurors in a people's court, everyone has something to contribute.
This vision of society is the inverse of the Republican private-business-uber-alles model, in which paying taxes and participating in anything from recycling to the public school system is an infringement on the individual right to maximize profit and minimize social responsibility.
TimeBanking may seem like a miniscule idea in the face of the current assault on so many basic social institutions. But expanding the barter economy looks better and better as state budgets get more dire. And, politically, the thinking behind TimeBanking is deeper and more radical than it at first appears.
"To be involved in TimeBanking may seem sweet and simple and even nice," Kahn says. "But we are taking on two major issues."
The first is the basic way we look at value--monetary value as defined by price, which in turn is defined by supply and demand. By devaluing the commonplace, says Kahn, "Our monetary system devalues every critical capacity we need to care for each other. . . to grieve with each other . . . to stand up for what's right."
"I think we're taking a stand on where value is--other than price," Kahn says.
That idea resonates in Madison, where people recently had the experience of standing together as citizens to defy Governor Scott Walker's union-busting, budget-cutting plans for our state and our communities.
As Dane County TimeBank board member and local entrepreneur Preston Austin put it: "Thousands and then tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of people got involved in a way most of us would have been cynical about days before,"
The power of people coming together like that is what TimeBanking is all about.
Among Dane Couny TimeBank's successful projects: a youth court, where a jury of teenagers trained in restorative justice "sentences" peers to help in the community, creating a culture of accountability, and an energy conservation team from a low-income neighborhood that changes light bulbs and improves energy efficiency in homes.
Cheri Maples, a Buddhist monk who used to work for the Madison police department and the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and who now runs the Center for Mindfulness and Justice, talked about how TimeBanking can transform the way we treat public safety: using a TimeBank for neighborhood patrols, applying it inside the walls of prisons, and offering it when people get out of prison to surround them with informal resources," and reintegrate them into the community.
Stephanie Rearick, the founder and director of the Dane County TimeBank, is co-owner of Mother Fools coffee house, a former activist with GreenPeace, and the founder of a small, independent record label. She had long been interested in an alternative, community-based economy.
"I didn't want to have a chain--but all the economic forces drive you toward more consolidation and growth," she said. "With environmental and social justice, it's really obvious the ways money drives things the wrong way.”
When she read the book The Future of Money by Bernard Lietaer, Rearick realized "it doesn't have to be this way."
"As an antidote to fighting for crumbs, together, we make pie," Rearick says.
"We're immersed in an economy of equals, and it feels really good," Rearick says. "What we intend do is scale this way up. We're ready to go and create an economy of abundance--an economy that's scaled to fit humans, and serves us instead of the other way around."
Another major stand the TimeBank idea takes, Cahn says, is "We're not just saying to people 'how can I help?'" Reciprocity--the idea that people are not just passive victims, that they have something to contribute—is also important.
The unintentional message of the traditional, liberal model of helping people is, “You have nothing to give."
For people who work in human services, this is a particularly interesting point.
Ron Chance, community programs manager for the Dane County Department of Human Services and a TimeBank board member, tied Cahn's vision directly to how to respond to state budget cuts:
"Some of it has to do with intentionally cultivating people who are getting creamed," he said. Instead, for too long, human services delivers services in a very top-down manner.
"In the private sector, people reinvent themselves or they die, like the auto industry," Chance said. "But we're doing the opposite--we just lop." Budget cuts will be handed down without a chance to do any creative thinking about making things work better with the people who are most affected.
Chance would like to see TimeBank challenges specifically linked to state budget cuts "where you invite people to present problems for the TimeBank to solve."
Don't get me wrong: this is not 1,000 points of light. Volunteerism--even enlightened, reciprocal volunteerism--won't save the world by itself. But the sheer chutzpah of the TimeBank idea is a welcome counterpoint to the compete-and-despair politics of Scott Walker.
Rearick and Austin recently got grant money to pursue "Time for the World," an effort to take TimeBank USA international.
"There is not a social issue that's a vexing problem that TimeBanking doesn't get at," says Rearick.
Case in point, says Austin, is a TimeBank member from Morocco just developed a voter registration aid to help Wisconsinites overcome the new barriers to getting registered and voting in the state's voter ID law.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Progressives Rally in Northern Wisconsin."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter