Timebanking is mutual credit, where whenever somebody provides a service to a member in a timebank, they get credit, which they can redeem for that same amount of time to get something they need from someone else in the network. It’s fluid and flexible. Timebanking doesn’t have to involve a direct exchange between two people, and it doesn’t have to happen in the same span of time.
The impacts are pretty profound. Matching people up based on who needs what and who can provide what is a different approach to an economy. It’s an understanding that everybody has needs and everybody has assets. Also, you don’t have to wait to have money to pay for a service you need.
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The norm in this society is that we have a human-service kind of economy through charity. There’s a group of people who serve and a group of people who are served. Timebanking takes the approach that we all engage, as equals, based on what we have to offer and what we need.
It’s also really good at connecting people who wouldn’t otherwise meet. As a community-building and community cohesion tool, it’s excellent. It helps people get past barriers that they’ve grown up with, whether it’s racism, or classism, or ageism. It really helps people get to know each other across demographic and geographic boundaries.
About 40 counties around the world have timebanks. In the US, our best guess is that there are between 200 and 300, with more being created regularly.
In Dane County, we started neighbor-to-neighbor timebanks and got offers of a wide variety of skills and resources. Exchanges included a teen boy teaching crocheting to a 70-year-old woman. A friend of mine taught a basic email class for a group of seniors at a church, and got her porch re-roofed with the hours she earned.
Now we use timebanking to pool resources and do community projects that otherwise we might not be able to carry out. We had a crew of people help each other plant gardens, for example, and also clean out a house for someone who was hoarding and was at risk of being evicted.
We also have a wellness project, where a crew hosts a monthly healthy meal and brings in people to teach non-clinical self-care like massage and feldenkrais. We have medical transportation, with folks providing rides to patients from rural areas who need to come to Madison for kidney dialysis, for example, or to get back home from outpatient surgery. We have inclusion projects that are geared toward creating opportunities for people with disabilities to more fully engage with their communities, both giving and receiving skills.
So while the timebank gives us more resources for less money, it also helps to rebuild all those community supports that can keep people healthy and whole and out of trouble. It gets at some of the root causes of the problems, lowering them at their source.
We created our timebank in Madison in 2005 with a goal of getting people involved in Restorative Justice Youth Court. And that’s really taken off. We went out and recruited kids who wanted to be jurors. Then we paid timebank hours to adults to conduct trainings in restorative justice for the jurors, and to help facilitate the project.
Here’s how it works. Instead of giving a young person a ticket, the police give him or her a restorative justice referral, and the respondent comes to speak with the jury of his or her peers from school or the neighborhood. We offer jurors timebank hours for their time. Then the jurors work to design sentences or agreements, addressing it if there’s a clear victim or if there’s harm caused, but also sentencing respondents to things that really appeal to their strengths and interests. Then we tap the timebank for those resources, too. One example, a girl wanted to be a drummer so, as part of her sentence, she was required to take drum lessons from a timebank member. She keeps earning her drum lessons by helping out in the community. We had someone who, as part of her community sentence, had to meet with a massage therapist to learn how to get into the field she thought she wanted.
With 2,500 timebank members to draw from, we can find almost anything that is tailored to the individual kid’s experience and circumstances. Then the timebank can also provide rides when the kid has to do the sentencing agreement service.
There are all these informal social contacts that develop, and they’re a lot of what helps get the kids back on a better path. Then there’s also the shift in the culture among the kids who participate. They feel accountable to each other, feeling heard and feeling a sense of ownership over how justice can look in their own community.
I get a lot of requests to share information about the restorative justice youth program. St. Louis has been emulating parts of ours, and their timebank has been promoting a way to pay off bench warrants through timebank service. In Providence, they’re starting to do some youth court kind of stuff, redefining school sanctions like suspension and expulsions.
One thing that I’m super-excited about is that now both our county and Madison are moving toward applying this model to adults. We’re piloting a small young-adult peer court, to catch the kids who have aged out of the juvenile restorative system.
It will be really good if we can [use this system to] navigate toward a more constructive path than police brutality and mass incarceration.
We’re also working with our municipal judge to pilot a homelessness restorative court, for all these people who’re getting tons of municipal tickets just because there’s no legal place to sleep in the city. We’re starting to work with the judge to have restorative justice circles where peers – people with relevant expertise such as mental health training – and the respondent come to a sentencing agreement together, and the respondent can work off their tickets in a better way, like by community service work. It’s possible that one of our community partners may be able to get them into housing in exchange for work they’ll complete in the program. If they need alcohol and drug abuse help, we can create a network of organizations, advocates, supporters and peers to help them navigate the system.
We’re really blessed here, because we have a judge and a police chief who are very committed to restorative justice. We’ve had such a terrible record in Dane County with racial disparity in our criminal justice system. We are very lucky that people have started taking action before things get totally blown up like they have in other places, like Ferguson and New York. It’s really hopeful.