Madison, WI

They stand over the table like surgeons, white masks over their noses and mouths, latex gloves covering their hands. Terrie Anderson is stirring a tub of gray grout powder while Sherri Shokler pours in what looks like milk from a thrift-store cream pitcher. The white liquid is grout additive. “You want a frosting consistency or a commercial peanut butter consistency,” Shokler advises. “Like Jif,” chimes in her husband, Jeff, who’s crouched nearby, watching intently. This is Madison–they have to be specific about the type of peanut butter, otherwise Anderson might be thinking of the natural stuff with the layer of oil on top, or the kind you grind yourself.

Anderson, an educational consultant, is learning how to grout the pieces of broken dishes she glued onto a mirror frame at a mosaicking class taught by Sherri, an artist who manages an office that promotes Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, and Jeff, an archaeologist turned university administrator. No money changes hands, however–she and the Shoklers are participants in a new local venture, the Dane County Timebank.

The concept is simple. Each member of the bank donates time doing something he or she is good at–be it installing a sink, babysitting, dog walking, driving, or planning a time-bank meeting–and in return can receive the same number of hours of services from any other member. The bank keeps track–one hour equals one virtual dollar. “It’s not a barter system,” Jeff is quick to say. Bartering implies a one-on-one trade of goods and services, whereas time banking is asymmetrical. Thus A helps B, who helps C, who helps D, who helps B.

Reasons for joining range from practical to personal. Vishada Johnson joined because she needs a ride to the grocery store for food for herself and three young children, following the recent demise of the free Women’s Transit Authority. Mandy Coboh, a high school sophomore who signed up in order to conquer her shyness and get to know the community better, studies French and Spanish with time-bank members. Both she and Johnson donate child care; Coboh also tutors in math. Member Ben Schumaker points out with pride that eight people quickly responded to a recent call from an elderly member who wanted volunteers to sit with her.

In the old days of barn raisings and quilting bees, there was a natural community of mutual aid, where everyone helped everyone else and thought nothing of it–or at least that’s the idealized version. These days neighborliness is mostly absent because neighbors themselves are absent most of the day. So why not a more formal system that plugs people into a community, that, as member Lisa Wiese puts it, builds up “social capital”?

Wiese, a physicist turned food co-op activist, is on the “kitchen cabinet,” or governing board, of the Northside Neighbor-to-Neighbor Timebank, which operates under the umbrella of the Dane County Timebank. (Anderson is also on the cabinet, and Jeff Shokler just finished his term.) The north side is well away from the University of Wisconsin campus and downtown, and its dwellers proudly point to its abundance of parks, cheaper-than-average starter homes, and ethnic and economic diversity. The area includes middle-class households and pockets of affluence but on the whole is poorer than the rest of Madison. According to Jim Powell of the Northside Planning Council, there are also more elderly people and more young children than in the rest of town, more families headed by women, and more African-Americans and Hmong.

The bank started last fall as a pilot project with the help of the council and was later expanded to include members throughout Madison and Dane County. The interim director is Stephanie Rearick, a cafe owner and musician who’s active in another alternative program, Madison Hours, under which participants buy goods and services directly from one another using local currency earned by providing them. The time bank’s more ambitious, she says; it’s plugged into a national network, Time Banks USA, which provides advice and resources. (According to the national group, there are more than 300 time banks worldwide, including Time Dollar Tutoring, a Chicago program in which students earn computers in exchange for tutoring.) In Dane County so far there are around 270 members who together have earned about 820 time dollars or hours. The Dane County Timebank’s received a $6,000 grant from the city, $2,500 from the county, and currently is working to include current and former jail inmates in the program.

Dane County inmates are already eligible to volunteer at social service agencies–they racked up 20,000 hours in 2004, working nonpaying jobs that range from loading boxes at Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin to helping people with their tax returns at Centro Hispano of Dane County. The volunteers gain skills and sometimes jobs when their sentences are completed. Under the proposed program the rewards would be more quantifiable: inmates could earn time dollars volunteering at these same agencies and other places and use them to get help preparing for jobs, rides to interviews, or services to benefit their families. This month the Dane County Timebank received a $30,000 grant from the Madison Community Foundation, and with other grants and donations, Rearick is hoping for a $70,000 budget and paid staff. Currently she receives a stipend and time dollars, which she’s so far exchanged for a haircut, gardening help, and picture framing. Another time bank member, social worker turned stay-at-home mom Ginger Seery, writes grant proposals in exchange for time dollars.

To become a member, you fill out a form indicating what you can offer and what you might need. A reference is required, and Rearick performs criminal background checks. The bank doesn’t accept people convicted of first- or second-degree sexual assault on children. It pays volunteer liability insurance, coming to about $2 per member.

Work isn’t guaranteed. Person A might paint F’s kitchen but never find anyone to teach him throat singing; person B might have no takers for her pie-baking class. The Shoklers went to the time bank and found a do-it-yourselfer willing to replace their rickety wooden stoop, a task they figure would have set them back $1,000 otherwise. Instead they spent about $266 on materials and 12 time dollars. Jeff helped and learned something about carpentry in the process.

Sometimes you get what you pay for. Anderson, wiping the drying grout from her mosaic project, says, “I know somebody with a leaky faucet. It started leaking again” after being fixed by a time banker. The woman with the sink took it in stride. “She said, ‘I’ll just call a different person.'”

The day before, a mile or so away, a stranger arrived at Ginger Seery’s ranch house: novice time banker Jody Arafat, who’d come to help with a task Seery hates–raking her lawn. “She could have been a serial killer,” joked Seery. Joined from time to time by Seery’s four-year-old daughter, in a pink sunbonnet and carrying a mini plastic rake, Seery and Arafat heaped up dead grass and debris; Arafat gave advice on an iris that had failed to thrive and offered to share some ostrich plume plants. As they raked the two women discussed the Middle East, local elementary school curricula, and the possibility that their two boys, both Star Wars fanatics, might play together. Seery spoke of the isolation she feels as a new stay-at-home mom, Arafat of having temporarily served on a jury that considered the case of a gang shooting. She’d been upset to learn that a couple of the accused young men lived nearby, and pledged to do something to help local youth and the community. The time bank was her first step.

Not all exchanges are recorded in the time bank. Sherri Shokler says that a neighbor’s going to help her train her excitable Chihuahua, Mr., off the books. Sometimes, she says, neighbors still just do things for each other.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.