In the 1980s Edgar Cahn, founder of TimeBanks USA, suffered a serious heart attack. Suddenly, the man who began his career as a speechwriter for the late Robert Kennedy before becoming a crusader for civil rights, worried about feeling useless. Cahn wondered how people who might feel useless could become valuable contributors to society rather than victims. Timebanking, a system through which people exchange skills and talents, was his answer.
Timebanking also was the answer for Debbie Davis, director of the Milwaukee Area Time Exchange. In 2009, a homicide down the block from her Milwaukee home left her shaken, but moved. Davis contemplated ways to make a difference in economically disenfranchised neighborhoods such as hers. About that time Davis attended a national conference in Madison on timebanking, at the urging of a friend.
Two years later, the Milwaukee Area Time Exchange she founded has more than 500 members. The chapter recently hosted a regional conference at which Cahn was the guest speaker.
“We need people to break free from the sense of powerlessness that they’ve internalized; they need to know that everything you give is valuable, even your time,” Cahn said in an interview with Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.
Davis believes that Milwaukee, though long known for its racial and economic disparities, also has a strong sense of community. In other words, it’s a place where timebanking can thrive. Though growing, the exchange has made few inroads into Milwaukee’s most devastated communities.
“We’re very grass roots and don’t have the staff to arrange all of the exchanges for people; we’re looking for those champions who will take this tool and bring it to their neighbors and communities,” Davis said.
The idea of timebanking is to promote equality and build caring communities through an inclusive exchange of time and talent, Cahn said. In other words, rather than most transactions revolving around the monetary system, as is customary in our market economy, Cahn believes that people need to be able to barter human skills and services to create social change and rebuild society.
For example, a member of a timebank could earn credits in the exchange by cooking vegetarian meals for one member, and then exchange those earned credits for services as varied as a ride to the doctor, walking the dog or teaching Spanish.
Cahn said that society can unleash the immense capacity of the poor in Milwaukee and elsewhere by helping them believe in themselves and encouraging society to value their time and talents.
“In Washington D.C (home of TimeBanks USA) we have people who’ve come out of prison providing safe passage to school for kids who have to cross gang territories to get there, and sixth grade kids classified as special ed teaching third graders how to read,” Cahn said.
There are now timebanks in 34 countries, 40 U.S. states and 260 cities, with more than 30,000 total members.
In Milwaukee, it’s been tough getting people to grasp and embrace the concept of timebanking, according to Milwaukee Area Time Exchange organizer Dolka Garcia.
“I found that though everyone loves the idea, people are still a little bit shy about taking the next step, so it requires a bit of follow-up and encouragement to get them started,” Garcia said.
Still, more and more people and businesses have been signing up for the exchange. Katie Jesse, who works with the Milwaukee Public Theatre, said that her organization sees it as a great tool.
“As a theatre company, we are always in need of seamstresses and people to help us clean up,” Jesse said.
In exchange, the theatre offers show tickets and the possibility to use space at the company’s new Grand Avenue Mall location downtown.
It’s a concept that Jesse believes is hard to grasp in a capitalistic society. “We’re taught from a very young age that the only way to function is to work and earn money, so how are people supposed to think any other way is possible?” she commented.
“My friend told me about it, and I thought it was great,” said Karen Green of Riverwest, who offers gluten-free cooking and an opportunity to sail in her boat.
For David Drake, a musician at Organic Arts in Bay View, exchanging services has been a way of life. Since most of his life was spent below the poverty line, he had to adapt. “I’m very familiar with doing things for exchange,” Drake said.
But time exchanges are not flawless. Rick Petzke, of Oregon, Wis., has served on the board of directors of the Dane County chapter for five years and admits that he gives more services than he receives.
Petzke said that other challenges include people not calling back or answering emails regarding exchange requests. Most of that has to do with the fact that there are more than 1,900 members in his branch, with a very limited number of staff to organize the exchanges, he added.
Still, Petzke said that he got involved with the exchange to make a difference, and he believes that he has.
Joining the Milwaukee Area Time Exchange is free for individuals and there is a small fee for businesses and non-profits. After a background check, new members are entered into a database where they can list all the offers and requests they have.
Davis added that being convicted of a felony does not always prohibit someone from joining.
“Everyone has skills to offer and also the capacity to improve their life and community,” she said.
To join the MKE Area Time Exchange or for more information, visit mketimeexchange.org or call (414) 374-8181.