Time to Grow
Janine Christiano's Arroyo Time Bank is part of a network of groups creating a more localized economy
By Christina Schweighofer 02/23/2012
When Kris Topaz broke her ankle and couldn’t take care of the horse she keeps in her backyard in Altadena, a handful of strangers came to the rescue. They fed, mucked and groomed while Topaz rested her leg. She did not pay a penny for the labor, though she wasn’t exactly dealing with volunteers, either.
Kris and her helpers belong to the Arroyo Time Bank, a growing group of people in the Pasadena area who exchange services and time. They use a currency called time dollars: One hour of service rendered or received equals one “time dollar.” Time bank members create online profiles, where they list the services they wish to trade. Dog walking, hair cuts, jam making, party planning, Web design, book keeping — anything goes. Topaz earns time dollars by letting co-members take her horse out for trail rides.
The Arroyo Time Bank is just one of a number of community-building groups that have sprung up in Pasadena and Altadena in recent years. Others include the NELA (North East Los Angeles) Transition group, the Arroyo Food Co-op, the Altadena Urban Farmers Market and RIPE Altadena, a local produce exchange. Though each network has its own focus, the groups share characteristics: They concentrate on solutions and lack formal hierarchy, and they stand for sustainability, or even resilience, and for a more localized economy.
Janine Christiano, the young woman who started the Arroyo Time Bank in March of 2009, grew up in Downey but sees herself as “rooted in Pasadena.” In an interview at a small, independently owned coffee shop on Lake Avenue, she talked about her commitment to the community. “I wanted to build something here and share that,” she said.
Christiano was in her late 20s when she first learned about time banking. Upon trying to join the then-nearest time bank at Echo Park, she found that she lived outside of its zip codes, so she decided to organize a time bank for the Pasadena area. She calls the concept transformative, her eyes lighting up as she speaks. “You switch your ideas of how things should work. Money, communities — things just shift,” Christiano said.
Time banks rely on two factors: trust and reciprocity. They are fundamentally egalitarian. The contribution of a housewife, artist or senior citizen counts the same as that of a lawyer, college professor or stock exchange trader. An hour of one woman’s life is worth as much as an hour of the next man’s. Members are supposed to record their hours at the online time bank, but in reality they often forget. Why? “People don’t give just to get,” Christiano explained. “They want to build community.” In the end, time banks function like extended families used to, like small towns at their best: People help each other because they belong to the same community and by caring for one another, they strengthen ties.
As a concept, time banks go back to the 1980s, but their popularity has surged lately. There are about 300 such networks in the United States. The Arroyo Time Bank recently joined forces with the Echo Park Time Bank. The two groups serve 650 members in Altadena, Pasadena, Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Glendale and the San Gabriel Valley. Monthly potlucks held together with another community movement, the NELA Transition group, serve as informational events for the public. They also ensure that members can get to know each other before they enter into a service agreement. At the get-togethers, called Potlucks with a Purpose, people tend to hang out in subgroups according to their interests. A barn-raising group attracts the gardening minded; there are the fruit pickers and the baby sitters, and a dog walking group is in the works.
The cooperation between individual members and dot-orgs has proven fruitful for both sides. Take the Armory Center for the Arts, for example. It accepts time dollars as payment for art classes, thereby granting time bank members who are strapped for cash access to its programs. The benefit for the Armory is that time bankers volunteer there and have turned out to be a highly reliable, committed work force.
The experience of a second nonprofit member, Throop Church on South Los Robles Avenue, has been similar. For the past few months, Throop Church has been working with the NELA Transition group to replace the lawn in front of the building with a garden. The idea is to create a drought-tolerant space with native plants, composting, recycled concrete for hardscaping, water harvesting, fruit and nut trees and an herb garden. The work is being done by neighbors, high school students and time bankers. In turn, Throop Church lets the Arroyo Time Bank and NELA Transition group use its community hall for their combined monthly potlucks.
The NELA Transition group was initiated by another Pasadena resident, Therese Brummel, who had her A-ha! moment in September 2010, when she picked up a book about the transition movement and couldn’t stop reading it. The idea felt historic. The transition movement, which started in England, is based on the premise that, due to climate change and dwindling oil supplies, our economies will have to become smaller and be centered more locally. The movement’s proponents work to prepare their own hometowns for this change by helping them become more resilient and less dependent on global oil, global shipping and global production of almost everything. They promote food, energy, building materials and many consumer goods produced locally.
NELA Transition is one of eight transition groups in the greater Los Angeles area. Established groups organize a variety of re-skilling classes, from gardening to jam making to home construction. Brummel points to the garden at Throop Church as a step in that direction, but NELA is still in its early stages. At the steering committee meeting, on a Sunday evening in January, about a dozen people — including a lawyer, a JPL engineer, computer experts, a psychotherapist and artists — gathered in Brummel’s living room. They started out by sharing potluck food but got to business quickly. On the agenda were the group’s electronic newsletter, which goes out to 262 subscribers, future awareness raising projects and a possible outreach to other local grassroots movements.
To some extent, the cooperation between the groups is already happening with Christiano and the time bank functioning as an informal hub. Patrick Reagan, the driving force behind the Arroyo Food Co-op, noted in a recent interview at the Pasadena Farmers Market that the networks support each other by mutually publicizing their calendars. He hopes that the food co-op will soon have enough supporters for the first member-owned store in the area to open in September. At this point, the search for a location is on. The targeted area lies adjacent to the intersection of Lake Avenue and Washington Boulevard, possibly in Altadena.
So why is all this happening here? How did Pasadena become a playing field for grassroots movements? Time bank founder Christiano sees “a spirit of can-do” in the area. Michele Zack, an Altadena activist and author who has written books about her home town and Sierra Madre, pointed out that many of the new community groups started in unincorporated Altadena, where the government feels far away. “We have to do it ourselves”, she said. Add to that the fact that the area is home to “a lot of raw creativity,” as Zack puts it. Institutions like Caltech and the local arts centers attract inventive minds, and many artists who work in the entertainment industry in Burbank choose to live here rather than on the Westside.
Brummel takes on a historical perspective. She points to the fact that Pasadena was originally developed by people from the Midwest who wanted to enjoy the outdoors. “The parks and trails, the houses with large windows and porches and the tree-lined streets encourage a communal lifestyle,” she said.
Community is the buzzword here, according to Brummel. “We are nothing without community — and that’s not just people. It includes the whole web of life,” she said.
The next NELA/time bank hosted Potluck with a Purpose is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church, 300 S. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena. Inspirational speaker Diane Carroll is featured. All are welcome. Call (626) 794-2587 or visit nela-transition.wikispaces.com.
Christina Schweighofer is a freelance writer in Pasadena. Her Web site is christinaschweighofer.com.