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All weve got is time

Brattleboro Time Trade banks on members swapping time for services

BRATTLEBORO—Walking the dog, preparing a casserole, or mowing the lawn have redefined the concept of “pay it forward” for members of Brattleboro Time Trade, a two-year-old organization based on swapping time for services.

Time banks operate on a simple system of members helping members. One member might spend an hour editing, then use his or her time bank to pick up desserts prepared by another member, who then uses his or her time credit to have some automotive work done by a third member.

“And it goes around in a big circle like that,” said coordinator Laura Brooks. “It’s a wonderful way to meet economic challenges right now.”

The concept behind time banks runs deeper into the roots of community. Supporters hope the banks will fertilize connections among neighbors, sprouting a network of like-minded traders where no skill outshines another and everyone’s time is valued equally.

From its Grove Street office space, donated by Bob Johnson through a time trade, Brooks manages the 100-plus-member-and-growing Brattleboro Time Trade.

Everything in the office has been donated.

Brattleboro Memorial Hospital donated two computers for members without Internet access at home. Mountain Computers provided an upgrade for a computer donated by another member. Sovernet provides phone and Internet service.

A model of reciprocity

Brooks said time banks operate on a model of reciprocity — a model that’s different from volunteering because people also expect to receive in return.

Brooks, a VISTA volunteer, moved from Alaska at the end of July to manage the time bank. In Alaska, she also helped coordinate a seafood business based on cooperation.

She said time banks bring communities back to the “old days when neighbors helped each other.”

But don’t confuse time banks with a barter system, said Brooks. Members avoid placing a monetary value on their skills and instead talk in terms of time — a perspective that requires a shift in thinking.

Often, people have what they consider “small skills,” but the skills are still valuable, said Brooks. Members also share resources like rototillers, kayaks, and hot tubs.

Understanding time banks is like learning a new language, said Brooks.

“We all think it’s a great idea, but it takes a while to really do it because we’re so used to being independent,” she said.

Brooks said that members offer more services than make requests at first because “we’re independent Americans who don’t ask for help.” Often, the concept of being in another’s debt holds new members back.

For example, Brooks said two new members fell over themselves thanking her after she helped them weed their garden.

“They shouldn’t thank me,” she said. “Thanks to them, I got to meet new people. I love to weed, and I built up enough time credits to borrow another member’s kayak for an afternoon.”

So she reminds members that really, they’re giving one another the opportunity to build their own respective time banks.

Time can be exchanged in units as small as 15 minutes, but people usually work in terms of hours.

The time bank also partners with local agencies like the Brattleboro Senior Center, where members earn time credits driving. Brattleboro Time Trade hopes to partner with more social service agencies.

One member’s story

Member Abby Mnookin and partner Laura Stamas use the time bank to earn credits toward dog walking for their toddler-aged puppy, Scarlet.

Mnookin and Stamas, both teachers, joined the organization in August after their two favorite dog walkers left town. They regularly earn enough credits for two hours of dog walking a week.

“We’ve definitely felt it’s worked out [for us and Scarlet],” said Mnookin.

Mnookin said she and Stamas have a distinct motivation to earn credits, but wonders how easily members without a motivation could let their earning lapse.

She said that for trades like weeding or running errands, the calculation was easy — one hour equals one hour. But translating the value of objects like the laptop she traded to the Time Trade office into an appropriate duration of time was harder.

Mnookin feels it’s fairer when trading resources to think in terms of time invested, such as how many hours it took her to delete the files off her traded laptop and transport it to the Grove Street office.

“As long as the two people involved feel it’s fair, then it’s OK,” Mnookin said.

Mnookin doesn’t imagine time trades replacing commerce, but she does think that they could influence how and on what people spend money.

Mnookin thinks the organization will become more interesting as membership increases. Brooks has told her she hopes the time trade will take a bigger role in the community as people with specialized skills, like physicians or plumbers, sign up.

A start-up

Brattleboro Time Trade’s co-founders Emma Hallowell and Becca Schaefer spearheaded the pilot version of the project during graduate school at Antioch University.

A class called “Corporate Power, Globalization, and Democracy” — which Hallowell described as “depressing” — inspired them to start the local time bank.

Hallowell had been a member of Hour Exchange Portland and saw time trades as a “spark of positive change” in a corporate world.

In the middle of a class presentation, Hallowell said, “I’m going to start one in Brattleboro.”

“It allows people to work outside the cash economy,” she said.

Schaefer joined Hallowell in the endeavor and used the project as a practicum for her graduate degree.

Hallowell felt Brattleboro was ripe for a time bank because it’s “open-minded about thinking outside the box.”

After a few small grants, and with Post Oil Solutions as its fiscal sponsor, Brattleboro Time Trade was functioning as a nonprofit.

Hallowell said that fundraising remains a challenge for the group. Donations that go toward paying Brooks as a coordinator are accepted at the website via PayPal. The organization has realized that, regardless of its aspirations, it needs a second full-time paid coordinator for the project to run at full speed.

“Ironically, we still need money to function,” said Hallowell.

Face time

Although it doesn’t happen often, the time trade system can break down when a member tries to take more in services than he or she has earned. But more often, members cache more time credits than they can use.

Establishing trust is key to a successful time trade, said Brooks. Brattleboro Time Trade checks potential members’ references and hosts monthly potlucks so that members can meet and “develop new relationships.”

Technology can’t replace face-to-face time or substitute for developing trust, said Brooks. She encourages members to get to know one another, as they would with any neighbor.

“We all talk about how we want community, and this is how to make it happen,” Brooks said.

Time banks have cropped up all over the country, with more than 80 time banks across 29 states in the U.S., as well as in 22 countries.

Brattleboro joins Middlebury, Montpelier, St. Johnsbury, Waitsfield, and Winooski as Vermont communities with time banks.

Brooks participates in biweekly phone conferences with an organization called Time Banks USA, which also provides the database software Brattleboro Time Trade uses. She received training from Hour Exchange Portland.

Dr. Edgar S. Cahn developed the time trade concept in 1980 while hospitalized following a near-fatal heart attack. According to the Time Banks USA website (, Cahn, an author, co-founder of the National Legal Services Program, and founder of the Antioch School of Law, envisioned a system to “provide a solution to massive cuts in government spending on social welfare.”

“If there was not going to be enough of the old money to fix all the problems facing our country and society,” Cahn said, “why not make a new kind of money to pay people for what needs to be done?”

Joining the fray

People join Brattleboro Time Trade through its website,

Prospective members are vetted before gaining full membership and must provide two references with their application.

Also, the Time Trade charges a one-time $25 fee to offset administrative costs and to help ensure the prospective member’s commitment.

Every new member also commits two hours of service to the time bank, like helping around the office.

“We always, always try to make everyone’s contribution valued,” said Brooks, who recognizes that the time bank will perform better once it reaches a critical mass of members.

“The more we get, the more we can offer,” said Brooks. “Sometimes, it’s just about having a heart. And what matters most in life is heart.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #80 (Wednesday, December 15, 2010).

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