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Could 'Timebank' become the new money-free Craigslist?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 29, 2013 - Are you a plumber who could use a massage? A masseuse in need of a hair cut? A hair stylist with a taste for pumpkin pie?

The local Cowry Collective Timebank (CCTB) connects people with a wide variety of skills. One hour of services rendered equals an hour of services received. All areas of expertise are equal -- 60 minutes of legal work has the same value as 60 minutes of love-letter composition (Oh, that Cyrano were an attorney!).

Last week, the two-year-old CCTB received a boost from a contest known as "St. Louis Soup Across the Delmar Divide.” Sponsored by the Pulitzer Foundation for The Arts, the Missouri History Museum and the Anti-Defamation League, “Soup” offers creative minds a chance to compete for funding several times a year during $10 soup-and-bread sessions open to the public.

The money -- usually several hundred dollars -- goes to one of several people or organizations presenting their plans for a vote at the gathering. With its recent infusion of $420, Timebank emerges from a temporary hiatus with an ambitious long-term goal of becoming something along the lines of the next Freecycle or even Craigslist but with time-dollars rather than money.

“I’d like to grow it outside of St. Louis and take it one step further, where these time-dollars could be exchanged nationally,” its founder Chinyere Oteh said.

‘Anyone can join’

While Oteh’s thinking big, she and her co-coordinator Derek Laney are actually more focused on the local scene at this point. At its early height, Timebank had 25 members. Now, with new free software from an organization called Hour World, which also includes a mobile app, it hopes to re-up those members and add 25 or more by March 2014.There is a $25-a-year membership fee.

Interested prospects can sign up at the Hour World website by supplying identifying information, services they can provide and those they’d like to receive.

“Anyone can join but the original mission was to strengthen the black community and that's still very important to me,” Oteh said.

The “Soup” prize money will pay for refreshments for face-to-face gatherings and some of the marketing that’s needed to publicize CCTB and create a website. Oteh is looking for a marketing professional who will be paid in both money and time-dollars.

The core Timebank members include artists, handypersons, an acupuncturist, cooks, and a Spanish and French language instructor, among others. Some of the most desired services are home and car repair, alternative health care such as massage and Reiki,and computer fixes.

“There’s an I.T. person we’re asking to join,” Oteh said. “We ask people who are already in the collective what they’re looking for and seek those people out.”

‘Culture of giving and receiving’

The name of the Cowry Collective is based on the cowry shell, once a popular form of currency in Africa and Asia.

Right now, the collective's Timebank is an all-volunteer effort. But Oteh -- who’s raising two children, working as an independent teaching artist and also part-time at the St. Louis Art Museum -- would like to eventually become its full-time administrator.


As its membership grows, she envisions breaking the program down into small communities and neighborhoods.

“You could walk to another person's house to do an exchange, get to know people,” Oteh said.

Partnering with social service organizations serving youth, the elderly and other populations is another goal. Working with those in the juvenile justice system -- who would receive and provide services -- is one possibility.

“Maybe they need help with tutoring or homework or a ride to after-school programs,” Oteh said.

Expanding to include such agencies would necessitate the use of background checks, Oteh said. Such measures will not be in place even with a new website, although participants should be able to note their certifications and rate the services of others.

Still, the best way to vet members is to get to know them, in person. A Sunday, Dec. 8 gathering is planned at the Gya Community Gallery, part of the Yeyo Arts Collective, a chief Timebank supporter.

“We’ll familiarize them with the new software and sign up new members,” Oteh said.

Successful time banks already exist as part of the local Grace Hill Neighborhood Health Centers, and in other cities including New York and Chicago. Oteh envisions traveling members staying in each others’ homes.

The spread of the time-banking concept shows it’s an idea whose time has come, Oteh said.

“Some of us have lost faith in the economic system and it’s important to find alternatives,” she said. “The good feeling we all get from helping each other in a culture of giving and receiving is a win-win.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.