The victims of the global recession are numerous, and their stories often tragic. Bankruptcies, foreclosures and layoffs are all too real, but what if money isn’t everything?
“The GDP doesn’t go up when people take care of their own families,” says Echo Park’s Lisa Gerstein. “It goes up when you put kids in child care, or people in elder care or in jail. Just because our economy functions that way doesn’t mean that’s a holistic view of a healthy society.”
Gerstein and longtime friend Autumn Rooney are the co-founders of the Echo Park Time Bank, a group of like-minded folk who offer one another all manner of services using hours as currency. An “experiment in local community building,” in Rooney’s words, time banking is the mother of all local movements, not only reverting its users to a time when barter was king, but circumventing the tax system by ditching cash, because, as Rooney adds, “money is just an agreement anyway.” One hour of effort equals one time dollar, and members log in online, keep track of their balance and shop for available services, which include everything from mushroom cultivation to legal consult.
Gerstein was initially inspired by a story she heard on NPR about a Barcelona-based time bank. Rooney purchased the necessary software in March of last year, intending to recruit 20 or so friends to help cover costs (members are charged $20 annually, mainly to cover the yearly software subscription levied by D.C.-based non-profit TimeBanks USA). In a little more than a year, membership has grown to 90, and Gerstein and Rooney have recruited a steering committee of six to 10 volunteers who vote on applicants and help organize time-banking workshops and monthly member potlucks. All told, the two estimate they put a combined 60 hours per week into the bank.
“Most time banks are run by a pre-existing non-profit,” says Gerstein. “We’re unusual in that we’re just two people that had a discussion and decided to start a bank of our own.”
“Without forethought,” adds Rooney. “Or staff. Or even a Xerox machine.”
“We’ve been asked to have our offices toured and I’m like, ‘Uh, if you want to poke around in my little clothing store, you’re welcome to.’”
Time banking’s biggest drawback, of course, is that it doesn’t pay the bills. Gerstein owns Flounce Vintage on Echo Park Avenue, and Rooney is an artist, otherwise unemployed. Each takes a token 10 time dollars a month from their bank, which seems hardly fair, but the pair stress that their endeavor “feeds [their] souls.” They recently threw a party for visiting time-bank creator Edgar Cahn, now 75, at Metabolic Studio (previously Farmlab). The space itself was donated, and time dollars paid for the rest: professional catering, two publicists and a red carpet photographer.
The Echo Park Time Bank has exceeding its founders’ vision, but it can’t afford too many more members without official infrastructure. Gerstein is hesitant to pursue non-profit status, calling the current funding environment “a philanthropic desert.” They’d have to spend a whole lot of time chasing down capital, and as Rooney points out, “We’re kind of teaching people not to use money.” They’ve come up with a solution, however, that’s a bit more enticing.
“We’re encouraging people to start up their own small satellite time banks throughout Los Angeles,” says Rooney. “If that happens, maybe we can all collaborate on something much greater.”