Time on your side

They say time is money, but a growing network of Wellington people are seeing it for what is ⁠— yours to give.

Current requests: compost for the garden, baking for a seniors’ afternoon tea, a fishing lesson, a mending lesson, help to transport a kitten from Rotorua to Wellington. Current offers: Get a knitted beanie made for a loved one, learn how Māori land succession works, get help to sort clothes and try new styling, borrow a van, borrow a food truck, borrow a disco ball.

Wellington Timebank’s 650-plus members are a diverse bunch, with varying skills and needs. On any given week the community are swapping up to 70 hours’ worth of goods, skills and knowledge for nothing but time credits.

The group are just one of 36 Timebank communities around New Zealand and, according to those involved, it’s the seeds of an alternative economy based on community, not profit.

Sonya Cameron Wellington Timebank
Sonya Camerson, a Timebanker for life

Sonya Cameron has been there since the start. For her, Wellington Timebank’s origin is inextricably tied up with the Christchurch earthquakes.

The first meeting of people interested in starting a Timebank in the capital was held a day after the second Christchurch earthquake in 2011, and Sonya feels it was why Wellington City Council’s supported the initiative from the outset.

But Sonya had her own motivations for getting involved.

“For me it was around the idea of alternative economies. It’s almost like the way the world should be.

“Edgar Cahn, the founder of Timebanking, talks a lot about it being an alternative monetary system that values things that matter. Like people caring for each other, all of those skills that the existing monetary system doesn’t value.”

Sonya, who has made more than 100 exchanges in the eight years the Wellington Timebank has been running, says that although you’re still making a transaction with a person, it’s totally different to one in which money would change hands.

“When you trade with someone from the Timebank, it’s almost primarily connecting with that person, as a person, and secondarily you’re having an exchange of skills.

“What’s nice about it is the more you do these exchanges, it creates community.”

Sonya has focused on two or three major trades over the years, offering green cleaning workshops, jewellry-making and food cultures – it’s enabled her to build her confidence and skills in those areas.

“I’ve seen other people do it too, they build [a skill] to the point where it might become marketable or saleable. And likewise, I also feel like I’ve learned stuff that I can’t pay for, or couldn’t afford to pay for.”

One of her first and favourite exchanges was being taught how to brew her own beer, which gave her a skill, a hobby, and the confidence to talk about the stuff too.

Sonya feels one of the benefits of Timebanking is in building community networks that build resilience.

“[It’s sustainable] in the sense that you are more grounded in your local community… For me, personally, I’ve learned a lot of stuff that’s enabled me to make my own things and be more self-sufficient.”

It’s the sort of resource people can tap into at times of crisis, or even economic downturn, says Sonya.

“It’s hard to articulate, but I think a future world is very much going to be local, and the stronger connections we have at a local level, the better. The better we know our neighbours, the better we’re able to support each other with that stuff.”

As an example, says Sonya, your neighbour might have a whole garage full of tools you could borrow – instead of buying new tools at Bunnings – but many don’t have a relationship with their neighbours in which they feel comfortable asking.

“Timebank gives you a mechanism to ask, in a way that otherwise you might not feel so comfortable way to ask.”

Though even within Timebank, she says, members still feel shy to ask – they’re far more comfortable giving than taking.

“But the best Timebanker is the person who passes zero hours the most times. They’re giving and receiving equally. In saying, I need help, you’re giving another person the opportunity to give and that person then feels more okay to request themselves.

“If someone’s in like negative 50 credits, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s not money, that person is not in debt. What that person has actually done is just facilitated a whole lot of other people to receive their own credits.”

Timebank team, from left: volunteer Anahid Connor, coordinator Alana Kane and volunteer Laura Sierra.

Wellington Timebank coordinator Alana Kane says she feels lucky to be in the job, and that there’s incredible potential and power in the Timebanking system.

“I feel like it’s this secret thing, and it’s happening, and we’re doing it, and it’s like man, we don’t have to be in this weird capitalist system that no-one likes. We can just do this!”

Alana says when you change the currency from money to time, it changes the value we put on people’s work, and makes the sharing of skills more equitable.

“What springs from it is getting rid of the hierarchy of work. It’s revolutionary, or radical, in that it is an alternative economy, it’s a way of relooking at work and how that happens.

“Instead of bringing in someone that you don’t know to do the jobs you need, you ask someone in your community. Everyone has these skills and resources, but we’ve become used to the capitalist system that exists.

“If everyone was on Timebank, we’d have a completely different society.”

Alana is relatively new in her role at the Timebank, and has made it her mission to boost efforts around community resilience and emergency preparedness.

In Timebanking circles, Lyttleton Timebank’s efforts after the Christchurch earthquakes have become the stuff of legend.

The Timebank had the knowledge and tools to mobilise people quickly and connect them with those who needed help immediately after the quakes. They worked closely with Civil Defence to do everything from check on older people living alone to removing unstable chimneys. They provided a vital drop-in centre for people feeling anxious and in need of a cup of tea.

“It showed how those skills can be utilised and how you can pull together as a community when it needs to be done,” says Alana.

When Island Bay’s Tapu Te Ranga Marae burned down in June, the Wellington Timebank pulled together a working bee to help with clean-up and salvage efforts on the site, and were also able to provide meals for those affected.

On a day-to-day level, it can also support more vulnerable members of our community.

Alana gives an example of a Timebanker who is homeless, and came to them because he was keen on a foraging workshop. He now has both more connections in the community after doing various jobs for Timebankers, a new skill which he can use everyday, and a resource he can call on for future needs.

“It was exciting to see him getting really into it and thinking I can get the things I need through this,” says Alana.

As soon as you enter the Timebank economy, says Alana, you start thinking in a different way. You start thinking about alternative economies, and sustainable ways of living, and about collaboration and connection.

“You start to reframe success. Success to me is no longer having a house, and money, and all of this stuff. It moves away from that. Success to me is building community, those connections and bonds, so we can all live together — it sounds lame, but — in harmony. It allows you to start building relationships that bring reciprocity.”

Alana says she has built friendships that started with swapping scoby and house-sitting through Timebank; but it can also be the start of community projects and businesses.

Projects like Quick Kai, which started via the Timebank, a cooking programme staffed by people with disabilities that provides $3 meals for anyone who needs them.

The way Timebank works means people’s work is valued in a more equal way, which creates more opportunity for inclusion of people who, for a variety of reasons, are often on the fringes of community.

On the day I visited the Timebank office, I met Anahid Connor, who was connected to the Timebank by Maranga Spectrum Care and now helps out with odd jobs like watering the plants and administering birthday time credits.

“I like the people here and I like to help out mainly,” she says. “It’s a good environment, good location, everything you can do here.”

Her only issue is that she can’t decide what to spend her time credits on.

I also met Laura Sierra, who has has a university-level qualifications and experience in corporate communications — but as a migrant from Colombia is finding it difficult to get paid work in New Zealand.

She’s happy to be giving administration support to the Timebank while she job hunts, and volunteering gives her a way to build connections in Wellington. She loves giving back to a community that has made her feel welcome too.

“New Zealand opened the doors for me, and I’m growing here, personally and professionally, so why not, whatever it takes for the community as well.”

“I’m really grateful to join this kind of thing, because I’m doing something that, I know after I have to leave, everybody is going to remember me, and say that was Laura, she did something to help the community.”

Shelali Shetty Wellington Timebank
Timebanker Shelali Shetty

Timebank board member Shelali Shetty was once that migrant without work too, and still feels grateful for the volunteer roles she had and the people who supported her along the way.

“I would just show up to Sustainability Trust every day, and water the plants and tidy things, and [they] would say you have to get a life – but I just wanted to somewhere to go, I didn’t want to be at home doing nothing.”

Shelali had completed a post-grad qualification in waste minimisation in Australia, and followed her husband to New Zealand after he got a job here. Without paid work, she started volunteering at the Trust-run Wellington Curtain Bank – and that’s where she first heard about the Timebank.

That was five years ago.

“Timebank reminded me of India, or any country where they have a barter system – you take something you, give something – but Timebank is different, you do it in your own time.”

Shelali’s favourite exchanges have been ones in which she made friends – she points to one exchange which started with help to fix a broken couch and ended with a shared dinner. The friendship and the couch are still going strong years later.

Food has been a strong theme in Shelai’s trades: for a long time she cooked just a little extra food which she then, via Timebank, gave to a doctor too tired to do his own cooking.

“Food is one thing that connects people. That’s the principle of my life, if you have anything excess, if you have too much – don’t keep it to yourself, pass it on.”

Of course that applies to time as well.

“If you want to have a community of a certain kind, make time. Do the things you want to do. If you just talk about it, you won’t get the result. You want to believe a community you believe in? Make time. Go volunteer, go find things you want to do.”

Shelali says the value of the Timebank is in the community connections it facilitates – which when it comes to events like floods, storms, and earthquakes, is vital.

“It is important because natural disasters are going to happen more, that’s the future that I see at least right now – having a database is quite important because I feel that as humans even though we are connected we are still disconnected from one another.

“What Timebank is doing is going to help us in the long term, because it’s going to help us build a community of people who want to participate in a time of crisis and who are wanting to do the right thing for others.”

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