And so the old saying goes: ‘Time is money.’ This is a phrase used by Benjamin Franklin in Advice to a Young Tradesman and is a phrase that has been absorbed by us all at rather a small age – it sits constantly on the tips of our lips. It is one of the most well known phrases in the English language and so of course it has made an impression on us all, for good or for bad, it has made or maimed us.
Yet despite all this there is a concept that toys with this phrase completely, so we say good-bye to Franklin (who just so happens to sit on the side of one-hundred dollar bills in the US) and we say hello to an alternative currency which brings with it new ways of working together and for one another too. This concept is called Time-banking and it sometimes also know as Skills Exchange.
Community time banking, or a skills exchange, is where individuals from a particular community volunteer to trade their skills in exchange for another. It is not money that is exchanging hands here however – the exchange works in the currency of hours, for every hour you volunteer you can request an hour of another volunteer’s time and skills.
The volunteering is often delivered person-to-person rather than for a particular organisation such as a charity shop or community centre. A typical volunteer’s involvement in the time-bank is therefore a cycle of collecting hours spent volunteering for others and requesting these hours back from other volunteers involved in the project. Imagine all the wondrous things that could be done with that hour!
A lot of articles floating around the internet on time banks seem to go as far as only stressing the significance projects like these have in relation to social cohesion. To talk only of this would under-estimate the potential of time banks, they offer so much more than this:
1) The Equality of Time
There is no skills hierarchy. One hour of painting a living room wall is worth exactly the same as one hour of teaching English as a foreign language. One hour of gardening is worth exactly the same as one hour of proof-reading.
What time banks grant us is an alternative to the unavoidable hierarchy of skills that a money-based system of buying services gives us. One hour of tutoring is not necessarily worth the same as one hour of ironing in a money-based system. Every individual’s contributions are worth the same in a time-based currency and the respect they command for their time is the same also.
2) A World Beyond Money
The novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is perhaps the first time I ever read a story, or remember vividly seeing a situation, where a character ends up paying ‘in kind’, paying in goods or service rather than money. Mr Cunningham, pays Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, for his legal work with anything he can from stove-wood to a sack of hickory nuts.
I remember reading this arrangement of ‘payment’ between Atticus and Mr Cunningham and finding it odd because the notion of ‘in kind’ seemed very alien. I must have been as old as eleven or twelve and yet it still surprised me. This example of the situation between Mr Cunningham and Atticus is still slightly inaccurate however – time-banking is not exactly ‘in kind’ as Mr Cunningham would still be expected to pay Atticus in kind to the value of his legal work. Expanding off the last point somewhat in time-banking it is an exchange made in sheer equality – profit of any kind is banished.
3) Free to take as much as you give
Volunteering your time to others is popularly depicted in one of two ways. Often, particularly for young people, it is promoted as an opportunity to develop their CV or as a stop-gap between paid employment. Both of which are inaccurate with the many reasons why people choose to volunteer.
At the other end of the spectrum volunteers are often depicted as rare ultra altruistic individuals which again stinks of inauthenticity and simplicity. Even the most altruistic of individuals is there because volunteering gives some pleasure or value in some capacity. Do not think that volunteers take nothing and give everything.
Time-banking or a skills exchange gives a more realistic depiction of volunteers – they are not there just to give, nor are they just a volunteer. In fact there are many different parts of their identity which they are likely looking to satisfy in what they give their time to. They could be hunting for friendship, for personal development, past-time – time-banking grants us an insightful look at what motivates people and a fuller understanding of notions of identity of those in our community.
4) Everyone has skills, everyone has value
Every skill that you have is worth something to the right person in your community. What is particularly exciting is that the skills that don’t necessarily command much value or respect in a monetary system are given their appropriate due here. It could be anything from darning socks to reading to someone, just a couple of examples I remember seeing advertised in picture of a Leeds based time-bank.
Time-banks and skills exchange most importantly will restore a sense of worth to individuals who, in the frame of a money driven system of currency, might define themselves according to the monetary worth of their skills alone.
5) Social Cohesion, you build it
Person-to-person volunteering whilst being a volunteer attached to a skills exchange or time-bank does indeed promote social cohesion and a sense of community.
I’ve heard friends refer to ‘community’ and their despair that it ‘does not exist’, as if community was this person that would pop their head in the door and give them a wave as they sit on the sofa drinking a watery cup of tea. Community does not work this way, it is not opt out, it is opt in.
Time-banking and skills exchange is the perfect way to try your hand at opting in. You don’t stumble across community, you seek it out and build it.
Time-banking or skills exchange is not some wild idea of a fantasy utopia at all. Time-banking is an idea of today, one of many opt in buttons for this mysterious thing called community. That illusive thing that unfortunately doesn’t pop it’s head round the corner of the living room door when you’re sat at home with the television on.
Not only is it an idea of today, it’s a call out for a system that values you according to your skills far beyond the wage you earn, beyond a hierarchy of skills that wants to rank and place you, beyond the skills you list on your CV. Time is so much more than just money – time here converts into people’s gratitude, into units forged to build a sense of shared feeling, it’s moments when people see the whole of you, not just the things you are paid for. Time here is a moment when you are valued, really valued, by the people around you.
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