A paperless alt currency is gaining ground in Vermont
Joanna Dillon doesn’t carry a gun to the office, and she probably isn’t licensed to drive an armored car. But despite her indifference to security protocols, no masked villains have looted the popular Montpelier bank where she works.
Maybe that’s because the nonexistent vault she oversees contains no bills. The Onion River Exchange  (ORE), a nonprofit Dillon has helped coordinate since last winter, allows 222 members from 18 towns to exchange labor and goods sans cash. The exchange, which grew out of the “enVision Montpelier ” planning initiative, is the largest of three “time banks” in Vermont — the others are based in Burlington and Middlebury — and is affiliated with the D.C.-based nonprofit TimeBanks USA .
A time bank operates according to a theory that’s relatively simple and vaguely Marxist: Some people — think youth, seniors and the poor — have skills that aren’t valued by a market economy. “Professionals,” by contrast, have marketable skills in certain fields, but a lack of know-how in others. In a time bank, people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds exchange labor and services in quantities determined by the hands on their wristwatches — not the whim of the Federal Reserve — by cooking, singing or consulting for “Time Dollars.” Stored “dollars” are then “spent” on such varied goods and services as cake, rides to the airport, photography lessons or babysitting.
“I think we need to be creative about our economy, especially in times like these when we’re all feeling the impact of a recession,” says Bethany Pombar, a 31-year-old Montpelier resident whose haircuts and fire-dancing sessions finance her daughter’s piano lessons. “I like that it’s an hour for an hour versus one skill set valued over another skill set.”
Other ORE time bankers include a licensed electrician, a high-school physics teacher, a professional chef and members of the Basement Teen Center  and the Montpelier Senior Activity Center.
Some call ORE “bizarre” and “communistic,” notes Dillon, a recent Bennington College  grad with curly brown hair and a warm smile. “But it’s not a crazy hippie idea at all,” she insists on a recent afternoon at ORE headquarters in City Hall. Crunchy overtones aside, ORE time bankers are building connections across socio-economic divides, learning practical skills and helping city officials get the word out on issues such as weatherization.
On a more philosophical level, a successful time bank prompts paradigm shifts. “It’s not an economic system, it’s a social system,” Dillon says of ORE. “I have faith that once it gets off the ground, it will really change things in a more permanent fashion, so that we’re not just biding our time until the economy recovers.”
Onion River Exchange isn’t Vermont’s first stab at “alt” currency. A few years ago, both Montpelier and Burlington boasted money-less projects operating in the style of BerkShares , a successful Massachusetts initiative cosponsored by the progressive educational nonprofit E.F. Schumacher Society . But “Green Mountain Hours” and “Burlington Bread,” as they were called, didn’t last.
Why? It has to do with macroeconomic trends, says Amy Kirschner, a Master’s student in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources  at the University of Vermont who helped run the Burlington Currency Project — a.k.a. Burlington Bread. Kirschner’s reading tells her that “parallel economies” succeed or fail depending on the conditions under which they operate. Such alternatives flourished during the Great Depression, she reports, and will most likely re-emerge as the U.S. sinks deeper into its current economic recession.
Burlington’s recent alt-economic history is a perfect case study. Kirschner says Burlington Bread counted between 150 and 200 members in its heyday, then sagged during fat economic times due to lack of interest. The project folded last week.
But a grassroots initiative called “Burlington Time Banks” has emerged to fill the void, and just in, well, time. Thanks to BTB, Kirschner is “selling” extra spider plants to other members so a neighbor will feed her cat when she leaves town. The grad student also notes that Burlington’s “bank” has connected her with new buddies. “You’re not going to get rich in a time bank,” she says, “but the wealth that’s created is staggering.”
One of Kirschner’s favorite theorists, Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer , suggests that “complementary currencies” are an important corrective to a misaligned economic system. “Money is like an iron ring we’ve put through our noses,” Lietaer told a reporter in 1997 — the same year the Burlington Currency Project opened for business. “We’ve forgotten that we designed it, and it’s now leading us around. I think it’s time to figure out where we want to go — in my opinion toward sustainability and community — and then design a money system that gets us there.”
Melissa Stiebert, a former AmeriCorps VISTA  worker for Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office, helped start Burlington Time Banks in the fall of 2006 after she decided the Burlington Currency Project wasn’t doing enough to fight poverty. Since then, despite losing its federally funded AmeriCorps VISTA employee, the Queen City time bank has amassed more than 100 members and helped facilitate dozens of music lessons, business services and community projects, including the Archibald Neighborhood Garden , a community gardening plot located next to H.O. Wheeler Elementary. What’s more, the mother of a time banker started her own grassroots “bank”  in Middlebury.
Stiebert, 28, suggests that time banks give poor people a psychological boost. Having grown up poor in New York City, she knows what it’s like to be crippled by a sense of “complete disenfranchisement.” So at one community event in Burlington, Stiebert recalls, she was touched when a man approached her with a confused look on his face. “Wait,” he asked, “an hour of my time is worth as much as a doctor’s?”
Time banks also help to promote cross-generational learning, says Dillon, a former intern with the Burlington Currency Project. When she’s not coordinating the ORE in Montpelier, Dillon trades “community credits” earned through blogging and video-editing expertise for sewing services. Another organizer donates “reconstructed clothing” and tutoring in exchange for banjo lessons.
Such community cooperation “used to be natural, but in the last 60 years, it’s become unnatural,” Dillon reflects. “We’re trying to get back to that place where you trust in your neighbor.”
Of course, since every parallel economy serves a unique group of people, there’s no single accepted definition of a “healthy” time bank. Kirschner, for one, subscribes to the theory — advanced by a University of Southern Maine professor  — that healthy time banks are diverse in terms of gender, race and educational background. Dillon buys it: “We’re lacking in the male department,” she concedes. But Annie Reinhart, who took over Melissa Stiebert’s role at the Burlington Time Banks, thinks the prof’s criteria are arbitrary.
“I think ours is doing great,” says Reinhart, who left her official gig at Burlington Time Banks this summer for a job with the anti-poverty nonprofit NeighborKeepers . Reinhart notes that most Burlington time bankers  are newly arrived twenty- and thirtysomethings. Sure, the member-run organization could use a few more seniors, she admits. “But to me, it’s like, whoever is using the time bank and making use of it at all, then that’s great!”
No matter how successful a time bank is, organizers spend a lot of time trying to sell the idea to naysayers. Some of the doubters complain about, well, not having enough time. (“Save some time having someone else do something you don’t want to do,” Dillon implores, “and earn some time doing something you love to do!”) Others, like the man who queried Melissa Stiebert in Burlington, have trouble comprehending the notion that two very different people’s time could be valued equally. But the most “prevalent” group of Montpelier naysayers — most of them seniors — worry their skills aren’t worth anyone else’s while.
“I don’t have anything to offer; I just need tons of stuff,” an elderly woman told Dillon recently at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center. “I’m 82 years old and I can barely walk down my stairs!”
Then the woman’s friend leaned over and provided some intel to the contrary. “Sure enough,” Dillon recalls with a laugh, the 82-year-old dissenter “had the best scalloped potato recipe in town!”