Backbone Campaign seeks to grow an economy without a single dollar

Organization will launch time bank with community teach-in from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19.

The coronavirus pandemic has seemingly forced a mirror on the United States. In many ways, this is a staggeringly different country than it was mere months ago.

The total death toll in America is nearing 200,000. The unemployment rate is at 8.4%, schools are online, businesses have closed — some forever — and simple rituals of daily life once taken for granted have been interrupted indefinitely.

The reflection taking place hasn’t all been focused on loss, though. Remote learning has given way to conversations about improving equity in education. More companies will offer work from home on a permanent basis, and that could translate to better commutes as well as happier employees, at least among introverts, according to a Chinese study. Health care providers are grappling with how to offer their services virtually in the future given technological constraints. Going forward, tech-fluent patients with conditions that can be treated remotely may opt to use expanded telehealth services that are poised to play a greater role in health care than they did before, according to the data firm IQVIA.

On Vashon, The Backbone Campaign sees an opportunity with all the change happening to connect islanders and deepen community resiliency. The organization is hosting an island-wide community teach-in from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 19, as part of the launch of a community time bank. Those who are interested to sign up and learn more should visit

Time is money

Time Banking is a concept where people exchange services based on the currency of time instead of money. Vashon’s new time bank will be brought together through a web-based software program called Community Weaver 3 (accessible in both English and Spanish). There are over 350 time banks in the United States, and other time banking networks have been formed across the globe, including in Greece, Japan, Australia and New Zealand

It’s a reciprocal system. When members of a time bank do a favor for someone else, they earn “time credits” — one hour of your time given to someone else equals one time credit, and the credits you earn can be spent throughout the time bank community for anything from childcare to computer assistance, personal training or help in someone’s garden.

For Backbone’s event, called “Each One Teach One,” new time bank members are invited to offer and share their knowledge with islanders about anything from languages, design, tools, history, how-to’s and more by teaching a class either virtually or safely outdoors. But the idea behind it is more than for picking up a new skill or hobby.

The Backbone Campaign began considering how a time bank might serve the island in crisis last spring as the country first began reeling from the pandemic, consulting with time bank leaders both locally and across the country. In April, they held a conversation with the founders of the 25-year-old nonprofit TimeBanks USA, who joined a Zoom panel discussion with Backbone to educate viewers about the model. They spoke about how people who are members of a time bank tend to be excited about the chance to give their hours to those who need them.

The goal is for people to feel valued for the contributions they can make — ones that the market economy cannot provide without charging for it.

Using time as currency “values what it means to be a human,” Founder Edgar Cahn told The Washington Post last year.

“We’re all trained as human service professionals: ‘How can I help you?’” he said. “None of us is trained to say: ‘How can you make a difference?’ I need you as much as you need me.”

Time banks offer a pay-it-forward sort of model, and Backbone wagers that’s exactly what Vashon needs at this moment, with the economic upheaval that followed stay-at-home orders making a strong case for cooperation among neighbors to see the pandemic through. Time banks centralize pools of available volunteers that the island’s many social and community service groups — surveyed over the summer for input — may need to rely on more than ever.

Moreover, The Backbone Campaign hopes a Vashon Time Bank can be of particular use to the island’s schools, students and teachers, who are now facing unprecedented learning challenges with the pivot to online education, and may need partners and mentors in the community for help augmenting lessons.

“We want to make something that’s in service to all the incredible work that people are doing on the island,” Executive Director Bill Moyer said during a recent Zoom call about the effort. “If we do this successfully, it will provide a bit of a roster, a bit of a skills or gifts inventory for the community that we can build upon as we go forward.”

“People have a lot to give”

Time banks are intended as more developed structures for support than the myriad groups on social media islanders use to find help of all kinds, whether for moving cut wood, catching a ride to the airport or getting troublesome cable boxes to function properly. Others post offers for trades and requests for volunteers as needed. But not everyone uses social media, noted deputy director Amy Morrison, adding that she believes the way time banks are set up helps foster a unique sense of cohesion and buy-in among members who become encouraged to do things for one another.

“There are going to be people in our community who are going to need a lot of help,” she said.

What the Vashon time bank will need in order to get off the ground is capacity and, long-term, engaged users. Backbone is looking to post artwork about the event in some locations on the island ahead of the teach-in. Moyer said they’re aiming for 100 or so offerings from the community to start in order to really demonstrate the potential and utility of the platform, both for the island and Vashon Island School District, so that the time bank may become something everyone benefits from using.

“This is an experiment. We’re investing and trying to give it as much possible success as it can have, but it’s going to have to shift according to the needs of the community and the advice and guidance from people [who live on the island],” he said.

West Seattle has had a successful time bank for seven years, starting modestly through word of mouth and potluck dinners before attaining 501(c)(3) status a few years ago. Its members — now 400 strong — have exchanged over 14,000 hours since the beginning.

Founder Tamsen Spengler said she believes that many of the people who join time banks are used to being helpers already. But even in the midst of the pandemic when members can’t connect like they used to, new faces continue to crop up.

“People don’t realize that they have a lot of things to give,” she said. “I think a lot of people think, ‘I don’t have anything that I could put down as an offer, because I don’t know how to do anything,’ until they start getting involved. And then they realize that even making [someone] lasagna is a gift, you know?”

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