balloons welcoming timebank members
credit: D.C. TimeBank

Rather than going to a shelter, a food bank, a handout center—what about an equal exchange of time?

It’s called a timebank. And D.C.’s is growing.

Here’s how timebanking works: A group of people get together to exchange their time, but no money is involved. For example, one person helps another with gardening work and for that service gets a time credit in exchange. That person can then use the earned time credit to ask someone else for a service such as singing lessons, pet-sitting or even food to make it through the week.

A woman in Mount Rainier, Md. who had run out of food was able to exchange her credit to get enough to eat from her local co-op through Anacostia Hours, a social-currency initiative similar to timebanking that was most active in 2014, said Nick Williams, then president of the organization. But with Anacostia Hours currently inactive and the new Silver Spring TimeBank only celebrating its second year, the D.C. TimeBank is the largest and most active timebank in this area.

The organization used to have 750 registered members, but the timebank removed inactive members from the website in order to keep the online community personable and engaging. In 2016 the timebank had a core group of 150 members which has since grown to 221 members as of now.

The D.C. TimeBank has collaborated with other organizations such as Disco Soupe at Bread for the City where, throughout 2014, the timebank helped turn produce waste into meals for those experiencing homelessness and in need.

However, there has not been outright work with ending D.C. homelessness specifically, according to Debra Frazier, TimeBanks USA board member.

On the national level, timebanks have worked with organizations involving senior citizens, incarcerated and recently released prisoners, hospice patients, social workers and refugees. In Japan, timebanking is especially used to foster relationships between the young and the old, particularly in villages where nearly half the population is over 65 years of age.

Most recently, in October 2016, the D.C. TimeBank launched its first Movement Makers Fair, where the goal was “to create a space where advocacy and community organizing groups in D.C. can share skills and foster mutual exchange beyond the dollar.” This year D.C. TimeBank also welcomed its newest organizational member, ONE D.C., a nonprofit focused on “Organizing Neighborhood Equity.”

The D.C. TimeBank is growing as a space for activism. Advocacy, fundraising and anything related to

working for social change counts as time credit, which is kept track of using TimeBanks USA Community Weaver software. The software also allows members to connect with each other through their timebank website and to keep track of service offers and requests.

Yet, even with over 200 active timebanks in the U.S. and in more than 32 countries worldwide, TimeBanks USA is still growing awareness of timebanking since its founding in 1995.

“The challenge of these systems is trying to establish and maintain a network of services, of people,” said Williams of Anacostia Hours. After Williams retired and moved out of the area, Anacostia Hours became inactive due to lack of sustaining involvement. The infrastructure is still there, however, for someone to revive, according to Williams.

Mary Murphy, a co-founder of the Silver Spring TimeBank, related to the challenge of keeping up an organization running completely on volunteer power. “As a new organization, we have not yet reached out to more vulnerable populations, we’re still trying to build the community and infrastructure.”

The personnel challenge of how to coordinate and check in with people is a continuous difficulty, said Frazier of TimeBanks USA. “With any social justice movement, people fall out over time,” Frazier said, “…we do lose people but we manage to find passionate people.”

TimeBanks USA encourages timebanking groups to hold regular gatherings and potlucks as a way for members to keep in touch and build relationships. The D.C. TimeBank regularly hosts a monthly potluck where members reconnect, welcome newcomers and request or offer services to one another.

“This is the crux of how we address homelessness,” said Frazier, “How we deal with the issues of social injustice and inequality is by building relationships and trust.”

She emphasized the problem with current models of traditional nonprofits and charities where there is, according to TimeBanks USA, an unsustainable one-way flow of resources.

“Why can’t those ‘clients’ also help the organization help themselves and others?” Frazier said, “Why can’t they be volunteers as well, why can’t they also be their own advocates—why do we need to bring in and spend money on outside people coming in to fix something and give handouts?”

Williams had a similar perspective.

“People in populations that are needy—recipients of welfare programs—those people also have something to offer. It’s kind of dehumanizing to just put them in the status of just being recipients. They will have more self-esteem and social value in the eyes of the community if they are participating, if they are doing as well as receiving.”

TimeBanks USA was founded by Dr. Edgar Cahn, co-founder of the National Legal Services Program and what is now the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. Cahn built timebanking on idealistic values that he discusses in his book “No More Throw-away People, in which he explains that everyone has something to give of themselves, something innately valuable as a human being where solutions are based on the foundations of empathy, equity and sharing.

It hearkens back to a day before rapid mobilization and relocation, said Frazier, to a time where co-production, sharing and timebanking was simply called a neighborhood.