Long before society became concerned with dollars and cents, Americans did real work that couldn’t be measured monetarily. Value was placed on keeping your family and community safe.
A group in Southern Vermont is getting back to those roots and proving that wealth is measured by much more than what's in your wallet.
The Brattleboro Time Trade began as a school project for two Antioch University New England graduate students, who were working on a master’s degree in the Environmental Studies program.
Dan Ridgway, one of the pilot members, a founding board member and current member, was friends with someone who asked him to join the pilot program in 2009. Like others who were drawn to the pilot program, Ridgway was intrigued by how much the time trade differed from traditional capitalism and how it helped build a feeling of community. Getting back to the old days, when neighbors lent a helping hand, was well worth the challenges of starting up the new program.
"It’s not necessarily easy. There are a lot of difficulties in organizing a network like this and getting a non-profit like this off the ground,” Ridgway said. “For the right community, if the need exists and the opportunity arises, it can be a tremendous force to create community or reinforce community where it already exists.”
BTT remained a small group until it took off when it received a $1,500 Seed grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund in order to bring on an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer in 2010. Vista member Laura Brooks became the face of the Time Trade, focusing on growing membership, finding office space and setting up the computer software used in the exchange of services.
Membership grew from about 60 people to nearly 300 by the time Brooks left in the summer of 2011. Membership levels settled to around 225 after the group required annual dues to renew memberships, but have steadily risen each month since January and membership levels currently sit at around 280 members. The annual dues also means these members are active in the group.
"When we instated mandatory dues, it actually helped in two important ways because it meant we were bringing in more consistent money, which we needed in order to survive,” Abby Mnookin, BTT Membership Coordinator, said. “Also, it meant that the people in our database were actually committed to being an active part of our membership.”
The dues are on a sliding scale that starts at $10 and ranges to $100 in case someone feels extra generous. The average amount is $25. For those who cannot afford the $10 fee, an alternative exists so those people can do two hours of service work instead.
Membership fees don’t cover the full cost of running the Time Trade, so BTT tries to raise funds. One of the successful fundraisers is run by time traders, including Ridgway’s mother, who sew “green” cloth gift bags out of recycled fabric. The bags are sold in three different sizes at local stores.
BTT provides a forum to facilitate the exchange of goods and services for the benefit of the community. The Time Trade creates a system that connects unmet needs with untapped resources. In doing so, the local economy is enriched by encouraging the sharing of skills among community members.
"It’s hugely important and that’s another reason why we want to grow our membership,” Mnookin said of the Time Trade. “It’s great to have a couple hundred members, but the population of Brattleboro is 12,000 and maybe two times that in Windham County. We feel like there’s a lot more potential to make a big impact on our community. We struggle with unemployment and underemployment.
"Windham County has some of the lowest paying jobs in Vermont. It struggles with losing the younger members of the community who need to move elsewhere to find work. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for the Time Trade to fill in some of those gaps. At this point, we’re not looking to replace the economy that exists, but definitely provide an alternative structure that could complement it at least.”
The Time Trade could become even more important in the coming months. Vermont Yankee Nuclear power plant will be closing down at the end of the year and that’s another 650 people who could be out of work. Mnookin said BTT is looking at the possibility of outreach and is another place where the Time Trade can have a major impact.
It’s not just individual members who take advantage of everything the Time Trade has to offer. BTT also has about a dozen organizational member businesses or non-profits that provide services, including Brattleboro Senior Meals, KidsPLAYce, Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center, Vermont Jazz Center and others. BTT is even closely involved with other NEGEF grantees such as Post Oil Solutions, Rich Earth Institute and Transition Town Putney, allowing BTT to effect change outside of new economy initiatives by providing volunteer workers to these other groups.
"Our organizational partnerships allow us to build with them and connect with people in the community in more ways," Mnookin said.
After Brooks’ period of service ended, BTT has been primarily run by members and part-time coordinators. BTT has three part-time coordinators now, who combine to work over 40 hours a week. Twenty hours are paid in dollars, while the rest of the time is credited in time bank hours. Mnookin said becoming financially stable is the group’s primary goal and biggest challenge.
BTT is still waiting to secure a 501(c)(3) status with the IRS, but there is a large backlog. Mnookin hopes that with focused grant writing efforts and fundraising, the group can work towards having a full-time coordinator or executive director, who could push the Time Trade forward.
In the meantime, members and the local business partners will continue to benefit from the services provided. For more information on BTT, check out its website.