The Unity in our Community TimeBank, where more than 800 members trade time and talents, turns 10 this month.
By Gabriela Santiago-Romero, Detour Detroit Emerging Voices Fellow
As of late October, members of the Unity in our Community TimeBank had saved each other as much as $1,042,273.98… and counting. But the Southwest Detroit TimeBank, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this week and now counts more than 800 people among its ranks, actually measures value in hours, not dollars.
TimeBanks — a cross between volunteering, communal living and an alternative currency dreamt up by legal scholar Edgar Cahn in the 1980s — allow you to exchange services and talents with other members. When you spend time helping someone, you get the same amount of time as credit that you can then withdraw. Maybe you spend an hour cleaning a neighbor’s yard; later, someone else in the TimeBank spends an hour cooking you a meal or fixing your car.
Since the Unity in Our Community TimeBank got its start, members have exchanged about 41,000 hours of work. (Independent Sector, an association of charitable organizations, valued a volunteer hour at $25.43 in 2019; hence the estimated $1 million in savings.)
The core values of TimeBanks are to pay it forward, and to build community. They focus on reciprocity and ask “how can we help each other” instead of “how can you help me?”
Growing the TimeBank out of unmet neighbor needs
In 2009, the nonprofit Bridging Communities partnered with the MI Alliance of TimeBanks to launch the Unity in Our Community TimeBank of Southwest Detroit for the Chadsey Condon neighborhood. (You don’t need to live there to become a member.
The TimeBank was a natural fit for Bridging Communities, a community development organization that began as a senior care service provider and has grown to keep pace with the needs of the people they serve.
“We would send volunteers out to check on seniors and they would tell us, ‘Ms. Jones doesn’t have enough food,’” recalled Jennie Weakley, office administrator for Bridging Communities. “When you send volunteers out who see an issue, you can’t ignore it, so how do you address it?”
Feedback from volunteers and their clients have shaped the organization’s direction, like a plan to strengthen social ties by providing supportive housing. Bridging Communities built the Pablo Davis Elder Living Center in 2002 so elders can be supported and remain in their community.
“We realized the biggest problem our seniors were dealing with was isolation and fear,” Weakley said.
As the years progressed, they saw an opportunity to involve neighborhood kids, who needed more healthy ways to spend their time and could help address their clients’ social needs. Bridging Communities started youth programing where teens would lead local community events like Movies on the Green, block club parties, cleanups and more.
Bridging eventually used the TimeBank to track their hours and gave them credits to use for their own projects.
Sparking deeper community connections
In 2011, the TimeBank got a boost when the immigration inclusion group Welcoming Michigan connected with Bridging Communities.
“Initially we were invited to work in the Chadsey Condon neighborhood broadly with a grant through [The Skillman Foundation],” said Christine Sauvé, Welcoming Michigan director. “We started to make connections and met with Jennie who said that there was already a TimeBank happening, and we just wanted to amplify it.
“They were looking to strengthen relationships and ways to connect young people to elders,” Sauvé continued. “This worked for us because we believe everyone has talent to share and strive to connect neighbors to neighbors.”
One way Welcoming Michigan helped the TimeBank amplify their efforts was through sponsoring cooking classes. Though members mostly post requests and offers for individual work online, TimeBank members can also offer their talents to larger groups. In the past, members have taught classes in the arts, movement and cooking.
“Together with the TimeBank we identify someone from the community and have them share their family migration story,” Sauvé explained. “The person teaches everyone how to make their dish and share their stories. And even though they all have very different backgrounds. They all find something that connects with them and they start to build relationships in the local community.”
She recalled one African American cook whose family had fled a southern state in the middle of the night after receiving threats and landed in Detroit.
“This made a connection with people who are also here who have fled from countries that have also experienced violence,” Sauvé said.
How the TimeBank ethos starts with its organizers
Weakley oversees the TimeBank program and recruits new members as part of her work at Bridging Communities, where she has worked for 19 years.
Before that, she had “no real sense of community or understanding of grassroots work.” She got her start volunteering for local nonprofits back in 2007, but gained an appreciation for individual-led giving and receiving when she found herself in need of childcare and was connected to a neighbor who watched children.
“I had never connected with someone so instantly like this in my entire life,” Weakley said. “As a single parent and the only one in my family left in the city, I felt very alone in this venture of parenting, and this woman welcomed me and hugged me… I came back three days later and she helped raise my daughter.”
This support allowed Weakley to focus on her career, and ultimately foster a program that brings that spirit of neighborly support to her larger community.
Banking on your gifts
“I’m so glad TimeBanks exist and I hope they expand across our communities,” Sauvé said.
There is a growing movement of giving that proves to build community. To find out more about more and celebrate their success, join the Unity in the Community 10 Years of TimeBanking in Southwest Detroit event.
Gabriela Santiago-Romero is an inactive TimeBank member and a fellow in the inaugural cohort of Detour Detroit’s Emerging Voices program, designed to tell the story of Detroit’s present and future in the voice of its residents. A resident of the Chadsey Condon neighborhood and immigrant from Mexico, she is the Policy and Research Manager with We The People Michigan and a community activist with has extensive experience working for Detroit nonprofits and local government.
On Nov. 21, she’ll host an event in partnership with Detour to spotlight the TimeBank. Stay tuned for more information on the event, where you’ll be able to hear stories from TimeBank members, meet Jennie Weakley from Bridging Communities and Christine Sauvé from Welcoming Michigan and learn about becoming a TimeBank member.
Main image: Bridging Communities mural painted by local artist and TimeBank member DeMaciiio. Credit: Gabriela Santiago-Romero