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Originally published in The Commons issue #254 (Wednesday, May 14, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.
BRATTLEBORO—Gabriel Weiss, a self-employed gardener in his 20s, moved from Maine to Brattleboro in September of 2013 knowing no one here and connected to no group.
He made it work.
In short order on arrival, Weiss became one of 85 new members to join Brattleboro Time Trade (BTT), a not-for-profit organization that facilitates an exchange of services among its members who do business by “time credits,” the time trade’s self-described “alternate currency” worth an hour per credit.
Those credits add up and can be spent on services from any other member in kind. Different groups refer to this economic arrangement as “time trading” or “time banking.”
BTT members create profiles to advertise their skills and needed services, and manage their credits, at www.brattleborotimetrade.org. BTT maintains its office at 15 Grove St. and is open Mondays, Wedesdays, and Fridays.
As of early May, BTT’s 250 local members list 163 offers — and 126 requests — for service. The most popularly traded services include child and pet care, yard work, transportation, computer services, and carpentry.
The site says that, in 2013, members performed 2,036 exchanges totaling 6,660 hours traded. To date, according to the directory of American Time Trades, maintained by TimeBanks USA at community.timebanks.org, BTT has facilitated 7,608 exchanges for 22,422 hours traded.
[At the time of this writing, BTT is neck and neck with Montpelier’s Onion River Exchange as most active of the state’s seven such time trades. Other Vermont time trades are on record in Bennington, Middlebury, Montpelier, St. Johnsbury, and White River Junction, with Bennington’s just getting started.]
Beth McKinney, BTT vice president, has been involved in leading the local group since 2012, and says that time trading facilitates the exchange of goods and services within the community for members’ benefit. She quotes BTT’s mission statement: the group exists “to create a system to connect unmet needs to untapped resources.”
Weiss says that although he was familiar with the time-trade concept before moving to Brattleboro, BTT was his first real opportunity to participate.
“It sounded really cool — a way of existing with people in a functional exchange that didn’t revolve around money,” he says.
One of Weiss’s first exchanges occurred after his car broke down and he paid a fellow BTT member a time credit for a ride to the grocery store. And from there Weiss says he saw the potential in the group socially as well as materially.
“It would have taken so much longer to integrate into the community without it,” he says.
The nationwide time-trade movement was established in 1995 when lawyer and activist Edgar S. Cahn founded the nonprofit TimeBanks USA. There are similar efforts underway worldwide.
According to Cahn, time trading “incentivizes community-oriented work that the traditional monetary economy devalues.” In his 2004 book, No More Throw-Away People (Essential Books), he argues that the top-down social aid programs of liberal politics have proven inadequate “because they’re not rooted in the communities they serve.”
Cahn cites as a more effective model an older idea of community self-help based on the mutual reciprocity of neighbors — and adds that he believes that this ethos had been eroded by the globalized economy and mass culture of the latter part of the 20th century. Time trading, he says, can help counter that trend.
Cahn created TimeBanks USA to promote the idea by providing support for the organizers of local time banks such as Brattleboro’s. The work is encouraging and ongoing, he says. He’s schueduled to speak on these ideas at the Slow Living Summit, set for Brattleboro June 4 to 6.
Brattleboro Time Trade began in 2009 as a practicum conducted by two students, Emma Hallowell and Becca McMaster, at Antioch University New England.
Hallowell, an environmental studies student, was introduced to the time-trade concept when an elective class, “Corporate Power, Globalization, and Democracy,” sent her off to research an organization that in her analysis was creating positive social change. She chose TimeBanks USA.
“After diving deep into the history of time banks I became convinced that they were an incredibly useful tool to not only work outside the mainstream economy, but [also] to strengthen the community through positive connection,” Hallowell says.
At the end of her presentation, she reports, she found herself saying that she wanted to start a time bank in Brattleboro, where she was living at the time.
With classmate McMaster’s help, Hallowell connected with a group of Brattleboro residents also interested in time trading.
From the beginning, BTT was an organization supported by local partnerships. A key early sponsor was the community organizing project Post Oil Solutions, which, according to its founding director, Tim Stevenson, served as BTT’s fiscal agent by securing grant funding.
Kipton Tewksbury, BTT’s treasurer, says there are many grants that BTT — still a “not-for-profit” organization — will qualify for when it achieves IRS 501(c)(3) “nonprofit” certification, which it applied for last August.
Until then, Post Oil Solutions is essentially extending its own 501(c)(3) status to apply for and receive grants and tax-deductible donations on BTT’s behalf. Donations made to BTT directly are not tax-deductible, as donations to 501(c)(3) groups, Tewksbury explains.
The partnership is a natural, Stevenson says, as “community-building is second to none in terms of our mission.” He adds that supporting BTT creates greater social sustainability and that “people coming together is the essence of an ecologically sound community.”
With Post Oil’s support, BTT launched as a pilot program in the summer of 2009 with 30 members and has grown steadily since. Six years on, the community is tracking along as Hallowell expected, she says:
“I would say that the time trade is at the place I imagined: there are active members making exchanges; the leadership has completely changed hands; and it has become a community organization that is relatively well-recognized in Brattleboro.”
In addition to finding more than a toehold in Brattleboro, and a needed ride to the store, Weiss found an opportunity to help lead BTT soon after joining. At the group’s annual meeting this January he learned BTT was searching from among members for candidates to fill out its team of coordinators. He described himself as “immediately interested” and was hired as a coordinator in March.
An exciting element in all this, Weiss says, is that BTT has the potential to fulfill its mission of community self-help:
“The first couple of years, BTT was a pilot project, and it’s only in the past couple of years that it has come into itself as a nonprofit organization.”
McKinney agrees: “We’re coming from infancy to toddlerhood now, and getting our legs under us.”
Abby Mnookin, a BTT member since 2010 and a coordinator since 2012, says that growth has not been without challenges. She points to the need now to shore up the organization’s long-term financial sustainability.
Here’s why: BTT’s financial support comes from two sources: dues paid annually by members — on a sliding scale from $10 to $100, with most paying around $25 — and from schduled fundraisers, which Mnookin says “bring in a couple thousand dollars over the course of a year.”
BTT uses this money primarily to address administrative expenses. Mnookin says that stream of revenue is inadequate.
The coordinator team is BTT’s greatest permanent expense according to Tewksbury, who points out that federal rules state that anybody who performs the same type of job regularly for an organization shall be classififed as employees. Coordinators such as Weiss are paid regular hourly wages.
The coordinators, who spend 20 hours or more a week in outreach efforts, member services, and planning, are the only BTT staff paid with hum-drum, non-time-credit currency. BTT’s president, vice-president, and treasurer are paid in time credits.
Tewksbury says that making the coordinators employees gives them more respect — and benefits such as unemployment insurance: “They do a real job — they’re not just helping out as members.”
Tewksbury says paying the coordinators wages by self-raised contribution would cost the average member $60 per year — that’s just not feasible for many members, he adds.
While it waits for disposition of its application for nonprofit status — and to reduce its administrative expenses and connect with educational institutions — BTT also plans to expand its internship program.
Where previously BTT hosted a pair of interns from Antioch University New England, it is now reaching out to the internship offices of SIT Graduate Institute, Marlboro College Graduate Center, Landmark College, and other Vermont colleges.
And, of course, BTT is sustained by local connections. It continues to receive support from Post Oil Solutions and enjoys a close connection with Guilford-based Omega Optical, a manufacturer of optical filters from which BTT leases its office in Brattleboro. The time trade pays rent on this office with 25 time credits a month awarded for the use of Omega’s employees.
Omega Optical is among 12 time trade members that are organizations or businesses rather than individuals. Post Oil Solutions is another such member, receiving help from time traders for its winter farmers’ markets.
Other organizational members include Transition Putney, KidsPLAYce, Rich Earth Institute, the Vermont Foodbank Gleaning Program, Food Connect, Root Social Justice Center, Vermont Jazz Center, and Brattleboro Senior Meals.
Emily Wergin is operations manager at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, one of BTT’s newest organizational members, which joined in March. BTT members can earn time credits for volunteering at BMAC as greeters, security staff, or event helpers. In return, admission to the Museum can be paid in time-credits.
Wergin explains the relationship works well for BMAC:
“The time trade gives people another way to visit the museum and helps us find volunteers. Most of our methods of finding volunteers were more passive — by word of mouth — but when we put our ad up [on the BTT website] we got two responses within a few days."
Brattleboro Senior Meals, which delivers meals to Windham County senior citizens and hosts a monthly community breakfast, has been an organizational member since 2010. Like the BMAC, Senior Meals has also tapped BTT members to meet its extensive need for volunteer help.
According to Senior Meals director Chris McAvoy, the program puts some 125 volunteers to work every month preparing and delivering meals.
“The bulk of our volunteers came from word of mouth and posters I put up around town,” McAvoy says. “Since joining [BTT] we’ve had about 15 regular volunteers who’ve participated in the Meals-on-Wheels program.”
McAvoy adds: “I like the concept of having volunteers receive a benefit.”
Senior Meals allows time traders to spend credits to attend Senior Meals’s Brattleboro Citizens’ Breakfasts at the Gibson Aiken Center, which includes a meal and a discussion of local issues.
“We’ve had traditional activities here (at the Brattleboro Senior Center),” she says. “The time trade is something a little nontraditional. It brings different people in and gives us more diversity as a center."
Weiss says he envisions BTT’s time credits as an eventual “inter-organizational currency of service” that powers Brattleboro’s many human-, social service-, and arts and culture-based organizations from a common pool of interested volunteers — while reaching a greater segment of the community with their own activities.
McKinney agrees, and says BTT is working to lengthen its roster of organizational members: “I see us reaching out to other nonprofits as we become more organized — especially to nonprofits who work for people with less means, and to youth organizations.”
Brattleboro’s Morningside Shelter, which offers temporary residence to families and individuals experiencing homelessness, is one group considering BTT membership.
Anna Gouznova, Morningside’s AmeriCorps service coordinator (and an individual time-trade member) says it is likely Morningside will join.
Should it join, all its residents will be able to make use of and contribute to Morningside’s fund of time credits. Alternatively, Gouznova says, they could join as individuals, and Morningside would help them make the best use of the BTT website from the shelter’s computers.
“A resident might find out about time trade from their case manager and sign up,” says Gouznova.
With regular time trade service, she says, a resident can “meet a wide range of community members and save time credits on his or her individual account. Then, when that resident moves out, they could get valuable help with transportation or childcare by using those credits."
BTT members offering their services to Morningside can earn credits by helping to prepare the shelter’s weekly meal, work in the garden, paint, lend a hand on children’s activities, and so forth.
Gouznova says she anticipates that Morningside and BTT can form a lasting, beneficial partnership, with community exchange as the greatet component:
“We need to acknowledge that there is still a lot of economic disparity in our community, and the time trade offers a chance for people to meet when they might not otherwise. It could lead to opportunities. Someone here might meet a person through time trade who becomes a link to employment or housing. We want to make those connections.”
In addition to recruiting new organizational members, BTT also wants to increase individual membership.
“We’d like to reach out to a diverse population and become visible to a wider variety of people,” McKinney says. “Increasing our membership will increase the types of services we offer.”
As gaining strength from the social and professional diversity of its members is a feature inherent to the structure of time trade organizations, BTT would like to “do dedicated recruiting of members so we can offer services like basic plumbing and electrical work,” McKinney says.
BTT’s leadership say thay also want to increase BTT’s diversity by drawing in a range of demographic groups that they feel are under-represented. BTT says it keeps no data about the ages and income levels of its members. This reporter noted an apparently solid representation among members by the middle-class and middle-aged.
Fulfilling its mission of creating social cohesion and reciprocal aid requires BTT bring in members from all segments of the community. According to Mnookin, the time trade is looking to reach “students, senior citizens, disabled people, veterans, low-income people, the LGBTQ community, and families.”
McKinney names another group she believes could benefit from BTT membership: “A big time of need is coming up for a lot of folks at Vermont Yankee (Nuclear Power Plant)” in Vernon.
Many of VY’s 640 employees will be affected when the plant closes at the end of this year, as the plant’s owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., announced in 2013.
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