“What’s the catch?” she asked as she idled up to the table. The yard was filled with blankets and tables, boxes and miscellany scattered over almost every square inch except for the well-marked paths. Our information table was welcoming people at the entrance, and this question was asked over and over again to our organizing team. “What’s the catch?”
There was no catch. Everything in the entire yard was free. You didn’t need to belong to Transition Town Media. You didn’t have to bring anything to take something and there certainly were no limits on how much you could take. It was all free. Media’s FreeMarket Day, organized by our TTI to reduce waste, had done something even more radical than just giving away things. It had punctured people’s ideas of what was possible. Something for free? What’s the catch? Having to rethink the idea that there is no catch makes people stop and wonder, “What other impossibles are possible?”
Transition Town Media has been a thriving TI since 2009, the first in Pennsylvania. We have many initiatives in all the areas Transition encourages, but some of our most popular are grounded in the concept of the “gift economy” as set out in Charles Eisenstein’s book “Sacred Economics.” Many of us read that book together in a warm, fire-lit living room a few Januarys ago, enthusiastically discussing how to implement the practical and hopeful assertions within it into our work as Transition activists.
At the core of our gift economy focus is a timebank. Timebank Media was created by our TTI to bring more people into Transition through the use of an alternative currency. Timebanking has done more than just that, however. It supports volunteerism in all the on-going projects in which Transition is engaged. It helps to reduce burn-out among the Steering Committee and other volunteers by providing a way for them to get their needs met in areas outside of Transition.
For example, when my family suffered a health-care crisis, with winter looming, dozens of timebankers came to my house to stack the eight cords of wood my family needed put away before winter. All of my committee-earned hours helped me and my family in a very tangible, important way. Timebanking also creates a small, stable, but necessary, flow of dollars (through membership fees) to pay for things like fliers and film-rental fees, web-hosting and office supplies. These are real costs with which every TTI has had to contend.
With two-hundred members, Timebank Media has in its three years helped to create a web of support under our community and a tangible honoring of all the work done by so many, work that is largely invisible in the traditional economy. As one of our members, Donna Cusano, relates: “Little did I know that this simple act of exchanging my time for “Time Dollars” would provide a life-affirming shift.”
Timebanking necessitates an hour-to-hour exchange that excludes most “things.” Sadly, however, there are lots of people who need things…and lots of people with extra things. Transition Town Media has created several different initiatives to solve those problem in addition to the FreeMarket mentioned above.
The first and most impactful has been our Facebook “Swap” group. It is a hyper-local group devoted to keeping things out of landfills. Do you have something you no longer need? Post it and give it away. You will always have takers in a group with 800+ members (in a town of 5500). If you need something, ask. It will be at your doorstep within the afternoon. Usually this is done for free, although sometimes things are sold as well. What makes this group different from groups like “Craigslist,” is that it is a) local to our town, b) usually everyone is known to each other or you know people in common.
You can look that up on FB and explore the connections you have with people in advance of meeting them, c) your generosity is visible to everyone, and that counts a great deal when you are establishing a gift economy based on trust, engagement, and generosity. And finally, d) you get 800 people doing the work of Transition without even knowing they are doing it. So subversive!
Our TTI also tries to scale these initiatives. The swap group is community-wide, but we also hold intimate gatherings called “gift circles” every so often. Thirty or forty people gather, share a meal, and then sit in a circle and ask of the group for something they need, and offer up something they have. At the end of the evening, everyone makes new friends and sees first-hand the effects of giving and receiving on the people around them.
Our newest gift-based initiative is going to open in June of 2014. Transition Town Media has been offered a very visible, “main street” space to create a “FreeStore.” We envision it as an extension of the Swap group and the FreeMarket. This store will take in all manner of free items, donated to us by the community, and make them available at regular hours to anyone who might be in need. You do not have to give to receive.
We are hopeful that this space will become an epicenter for our sharing community in Media, with gathering space, free books, comfortable chairs, food to share, and information about community events and larger items (like furniture) that are also available in people’s homes. This space will also serve as Transition Town Media’s first office space as well. It is being funded by grants (like one we just got from Shareable, making us part of their Sharing Cities initiative) and private donations from our Transition community and other interested community members. It will be staffed by Timebank Media volunteers.
Transition Town Media sees that some of its mission is to puncture the cynicism that surrounds creating real, lasting social change at the local level. There are critics of the effectiveness of localism everywhere, it seems. We feel, however, that if we can joyfully provide, without a catch, for all members of our community and serve their well-being through gift economics, the paralysis of cynicism might give way to the empowerment and agency needed to create this more beautiful world for which we, as Transition initiatives everywhere, are striving. If we give people the experience that the world is a little better than they think it is, a little more giving, a little more just, what else might be possible?