A New Way to Build Community Economy

A timebank is a system of mutual credit, where a member provides a service to someone else in the timebank and gets credit, which they can redeem for that same amount of time to get something they need from another person in the network. Timebanks capture our imaginations and allow us to replace some of our financial pressures with community supports. Engaging in timebanking lets us enhance our social ties, stretch our budgets in this money-based economy, and free up our time. Timebanking works beautifully for growing informal community economies, where people used to meet their basic needs before they were swallowed up by the monetary economy.

But timebanking can’t do everything. It’s great for exchanging the abundant resources of caregiving, creativity, civic engagement, and community building – many of the things that tend to stay in the informal community economy and are often un- or undervalued. But we also need ways to help support local businesses in the face of global competition, and for some things we simply need money. Perhaps even more, we need to rebuild our commons and re-learn how to share.

Now we’re working to redirect competitive economic dynamics by designing and developing a more cooperative, decentralized alternative to help resources flow within and between our communities. We can supplement timebanking and enhance its impact by forming cooperatives around a common purpose, like cooperatively managed pools of money (community savings and investment pools) and other forms of mutual credit and shared resources. We’re calling this cooperative framework Mutual Aid Networks, or MANs.

The mission of MANs is to create the means for everyone to discover and succeed in work they want to do, with the support of their community. We can be the job creators. By redesigning our own work lives and working together, we can make the economy work for us and our needs. Instead of going out and finding a job – working for “the man” – we want to create a situation where you can design your ideal work life, as a whole human being, working for the MAN. With timebanking helping to identify and catalyze the exchange of people’s time and talents toward a common purpose, the additional common resources enable people to save their money together, invest it, and then choose how they allocate funding to accomplish common goals.

We help people in the local network figure out how to rely on each other, pool existing resources, and leverage them to hire their friends and community members to make their own dreams and projects a reality. For example, you could form a MAN for a specific purpose such as food security or a specific issue such as racial disparity or disability inclusion, by connecting with other people who already are working on the issue. A MAN can form at any scale, for any purpose, as long as it upholds our core principles.

A real-world example from Dane County in Madison, WI, involves a neighborhood called Allied Drive that has been dealing with many challenges, including poverty, food scarcity, and incarceration. Several activities in this neighborhood are linked to the Dane County TimeBank. Different timebank projects have been addressing a variety of these needs, including poverty and diverting youth out of the school-to-prison pipeline. A local cooperative and the very first local MAN, called the Allied Community Co-op, has been created by residents and neighborhood organizations in partnership with the timebank. It has organized community wellness activities, a small store, and garden projects.

The co-op also began a project called PowerTime, where we partnered with our local utility company to train a number of neighborhood people to do energy consulting, for which they earned timebank hours. These energy consultants worked with neighborhood families to make small, energy-saving changes. On average, households participating in the energy consultations reduced energy use by 10%.

The vision for PowerTime was to build participation in the co-op and energy project and have the participating families track the dollars they saved on their utility bills. A percentage of these savings would be pooled for cooperatively managed projects. In the case of the Allied Drive neighborhood, the goal was to generate a mutual savings pool to get better transportation for youth and people with medical needs, and obtain good food in an area with no grocery stores. Everyone in the neighborhood benefits when local assets are pooled and leveraged for the common good.

Allied Co-op has since shifted gears to respond to a growing shortage of food resources, but the energy project will continue. The next step for the Allied Co-op is to create a neighborhood resource center, which includes our timebank store, space for all the community organizations and projects, shared computers and sewing machines, joint working space, and a buying club for food. It will also include a neighborhood college where neighbors propose and teach the classes, earning timebank hours.

We’re currently working with people around the world to establish 15 MAN pilot projects, sharing all of our learning so we can determine what works best under varying local conditions. Most pilot sites are starting from an existing initiative like a timebank, a local currency, or a co-op – whose members want to add another piece of the MAN framework and experiment with how these collaborative exchange strategies can support each other to address a specific community goal.

In service to this learning and sharing, we have established an umbrella cooperative with global membership, called the Main MAN. The Main MAN, incorporated here in Wisconsin where we have excellent cooperative law and history, connects local projects and global supporters. We are experimenting with member dues and rebates. We are also creating an egalitarian and inclusive decision-making process to determine how money gets allocated.

It’s actually a way to play with the community savings pool model. In a co-op, you collect member dues and you can provide member rebates. But in our global co-op, we will base rebates on many different kinds of contributions, not just monetary. Ours will be based on such things as work on local projects and training initiatives. This mechanism for distributing resources helps get them where they are most needed.

Please join us! We’re offering a web summit, an online learning series. We’re also inviting people here to Madison, Wisconsin, on August 20-28 for a MAN Up Summit. We’ll host trainings, collaboration sessions, work sprints, learning games, and a launch party. Come be with us and/or help us fund others to get here!  

To start a timebank or a MAN project, or to learn more, visit our website at www.mutualaidnetwork.org or contact Stephanie Rearick at info@mutualaidnetwork.org.

Stephanie Rearick is founder and project coordinator of Mutual Aid Networks. She is also founding co-director of the Dane County [Wisconsin] TimeBank, and former co-chair and former interim co-director of TimeBanks USA.