As a founding member of the Sharing Cities Network (SCN), Shareable interviewed Arroyo Sustainable Economies Organization (ASECO) to get the scoop on their recently released plan to create Share LA. It’s a bold plan to turn notoriously unequal and sprawling Los Angeles into a community-oriented, resource sharing city for all. To read the full plan for Share LA and vote for them, visit the LA 2050 GOOD Challenge.
The following ASECO Board members responded to our interview: Sarah McGowan Dear (left), Nancy Berlin (2nd from left), and Janine Christiano (4th from left pictured above), and Autumn Rooney.
How did you personally get involved in new economy work in LA?
Janine: Accidentally, in fall of 2008, I found myself in a new neighborhood and feeling very isolated. I was working at a library and one of our patrons invited me to a potluck for a “time bank” I hadn’t heard of it so I researched it, and the core concepts behind it resonated really deeply with me. I grew up in a multi-generational family of immigrants with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents always around to lend hand and offer support and comfort. The time bank created that same sense of security for me. Also, in the fall of 2008 with the crash of the economy and the really predatory practices of corporate America exposed, I just felt a call to action, I needed to take steps to create the world and the neighborhood I wanted to live in. Starting the time bank was a small way I could change things.
Nancy: One day it occurred to me that I didn’t know many people in my own neighborhood, and I wanted to find a way to do that. I felt like if we were ever going to make real change, it was going to have to happen from the ground up. I found the time bank on the internet and just showed up at a potluck. I was a little timid, but was immediately won over by how friendly and inviting everybody was.
Sarah: I think facing a crumbling economy at the time that I was graduating with my BA planted the seeds. Then CA governor Gray Davis gave the commencement speech and basically said that never had a graduating class faced such dire economic forecasts. He went on to say that basically this meant that our education would be critical in order to “get the good job” but I consistently found this wasn’t true. My employment “opportunities” consistently came from me going out and figuring out what I wanted to do and making a job or convincing someone to create a job for me. Today’s economy doesn’t make any of the promises that were offered to previous generations. As I learned to accept this, I thankfully learned also learned that a key to happiness was definitely going to come from learning to live with less and find a sense of security that did not come from the mainstream economy. When I found the Echo Park Time Bank, it just all coalesced. I had an alternative economy that more than compensated for the failings on the mainstream economy. Never was my bank balance so dismal, but my sense of wellbeing so great. It was a weird, inverted relationship to have with money, but one that has allowed me to live better since discovering it.
Autumn: I learned about time banking in 2008 through a friend who had taken a permaculture class. I loved the idea and decided to start a time bank. At the time there was only one other time bank in the whole state, up in Oakland and not a lot of info or resources about it on the web. Time Banks USA was extremely helpful. We tried it as an experiment and now there are 25 time banks in the state of California and over 300 nationwide. The time bank is the foundation from which other projects have sprung. Now I can’t imagine life without it.
Food Forestry Workshop by Echo Park Timebank
Why is timebanking important to the development of a solidarity economy movement locally and internationally? What other projects or work do you see as crucial?
Janine: Time banking lets people get resources when money is scarce and allows people to survive and provide for themselves. It creates more opportunities for economic justice by leveling the playing field – with everyone’s time valued as equal, it really comes down to getting back whatever it is that you give…give a little and you get a little in return – give a lot and you could find yourself supported by a very active, caring community that you’ve helped develop.
Sarah: It connects people who otherwise might never come together and it gives people of different backgrounds, skill sets and interests a way to share their knowledges, experience and time.
In general, we think this kind of work is important for every community to do for themselves – true transformation is going to come from individual community members stepping forward to help organize similar movements. The more we can inspire others to think outside the box and implement these kinds of strategies, the more we rely each other instead of socioeconomic factors that are so often beyond our control. The more we challenge and disrupt those systems that keep us disconnected and disempowered, the more we begin to reshape what community can look like in our own hands.
Launch of the Revolving Loan Fund for small businesses in LA
How has the Arroyo Seco Network of Timebanks grown? What other programs have spun off from it?
The ASNTB grew organically throughout LA county after the merger between the Echo Park and Arroyo Time Banks. Some of the projects that have grown from the ASNTB through member-led initiatives. We have also established specific programs targeted at serving the ASNTB community through ASECO:
Sarah: From a “why does this work so well” standpoint – time banking has spread because we are social animals and we do much better when we are connected. Much of the social distress so many of us feel is the result of being alienated, isolated, marginalized, bullied, etc. And that’s from not having a place inside the circle with everyone else – whether that’s on a most basic need level or on a social level. What time banking does so well is give everyone a place inside that community circle. The only thing you have to do is agree to use a new paradigm or model of valuation. And if you can do that, the possibilities are endless. We’re already doing that by buying into the mainstream economy, so why not something that is more egalitarian and transformative?
As we started creating more complex programs, like the Community Revolving Loan Fund, for example, we started to really begin to see how many opportunities there are for average people like you and me to grab ahold of existing resources, whether through philanthropic support, crowdfunding or partnerships, and make them available to our communities. Why wait for someone else to give you tomorrow what you can create today? Everything we do kind of comes from this ethos and you’d be surprised how infectious that is when you see other people in your community all of a sudden becoming active or radicalized or simply making activism a part of everyday life. One person’s example becomes galvanizing.
You applied for the LA 2050 GOOD Challenge. What is your vision for Share LA, what does your complete sharing city look like?
All: Time banking implemented throughout the city, with active community leaders. Worker-ownership embraced through high-level partnerships and political will as a powerful vehicle for community development in economically depressed neighborhoods (e.g. the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, OH)
Sarah: We think a community’s strength and therefore wealth should come from its level of connection and commitment to taking care of one another. Most people derive over 90% of their sense of security from the mainstream economy. This access to federal currency, or lack of it, therefore defines how people see themselves in relation to others and how much value they therefore have in society. The great thing about the Sharing Economy is that it tells everyone they are of value and have something of value to share with their community. This vision asks everyone in the city – all stakeholders and powerbrokers, average citizens and seasoned community activists alike – to believe in something new. It’s really hard to change beliefs, yet the easiest way to do that is through proximity. The closer we are to something or have personal experience with it, the more we tend to like it. And sharing, like connecting with others, makes you feel good. The more you do it the better you feel and the more you want to keep doing it. I see this blueprint as a practical roadmap for how communities can replace apathy and scarcity with engagement, opportunity and resource.
Janine: In my vision of LA as a truly sharing city, it’s a place where no matter what your background and circumstances, there are ways for your needs to be provided, that includes the most basic need for human interaction and connection.
Autumn: Los Angeles is a beautiful city with lots of challenges. I would like L.A. to become a model for what a humane ecosystem can be. That means safe housing for everyone, clean air, affordable public transit, a healthy river, more public space and politicians who prioritize the happiness of it’s citizens. Hopefully we can achieve this before 2050.
Video made by Shareable’s Lares Feliciano for Share LA
Where do you draw inspiration from? Other cities/models?
Sarah: When a community really comes together to problem solve, it’s amazing what bubbles to the surface, both in terms of solutions but more importantly the resources that are brought to the table. Time banking has shown me that community building solutions can get started on a very personal level but grow much larger in a relatively short period of time and in a very organic, responsive way. Seeing how this incredibly low cost model can actually be a hugely effective service delivery mechanism for community resiliency, it makes sense to offer it in every neighborhood as part of a city-wide strategy to promote more social connection.
The Mondragon cooperatives in Spain – though they’ve struggled lately with bankruptcies and scalability issues, they show that embracing egalitarian ownership isn’t just a utopian or passé fad from the 70s – cooperative business, like many sharing economy strategies, incentivizes participation, gives people a desire to work hard together towards a common end and from which they all benefit. I think cooperative development – or giving employees a place at the decision-making and ownership table is more the American Dream than the corporate model that takes so much from us and gives so little in return.
The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, OH – this model project shows what can happen when high-level partnerships are formed between nonprofit, private and civic sectors. Worker ownership has incredible potential to transform communities. We wonder what LA could look like if every economically oppressed neighborhood in LA had a worker-owned business.
Nancy: I started to look for answers to how else we can organize our economy. People just kept saying there were no other models. I scraped together my savings and went to Mondragon, Spain to see their worker cooperative model myself. They are involved in every aspect of community life – not just work. They support the local schools and soccer leagues, they have their own health insurance program and university. They even have their own bank! I came home and kept saying to everyone, “Let’s start our own bank!” The first person who didn’t think I was kidding or crazy was Autumn. And now we have our own Community Loan Fund, our very own experiment in community banking!
Janine: I draw inspiration from the work that has come out of The Schumacher Center in Great Barrington, what they have been able to do in their small community with simple but revolutionary concepts like the CSA and land trusts, and the type of work and projects they have influenced around the world is amazing. I’m also completely inspired by the work of permaculturists for the same reason. Paul Glover’s LA: A History of the Future is such an inspired, idealistic and prophetic vision, it’s amazing that it was written 30 years ago. I’m always inspired by the work of other time bankers across the country, so it’s great to be part of the SCN. Internationally, I think Seoul, South Korea is really exciting for the sharing economy and I’m always inspired by the social services, specifically those for the family, offered by Norway and other Scandanavian countries and Mondragon, Spain for their development of cooperatives. Also, I’d be no where without the work, friendship, and guidance of Timebanks USA founder Edgar Cahn. And literally everyday I’m inspired by what one of our members or time bank neighborhood leader proposes, they have limitless creativity and generosity of spirit, it’s pretty cool that my neighbors and collaborators are biggest heros.
Autumn: I’m inspired by the our board and our members and the constant stream of creativity that grows out of it. Lois Arkin of the L.A. Eco Village has been a mentor and inspiration to me. She has done so much for Los Angeles and has always been ahead of her time. Also Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication.
Specifically in LA, why is this work needed? What are the most important issues facing LA?
Sarah: For years, Autumn and I would go on weekly walks, fantasizing about starting the Happiness Party – making a political party that at its core focused on quality of life and happiness indicators as real progress for the city. We could see so many possibilities for sharing economy solutions in our communities and, at the time, it seemed like bringing it to the political stage would elevate them. But politics alone won’t solve our problems and if anything, we’ve found with time banking that so much more is possible, more quickly when implemented on a neighborhood scale than a city scale. So if enough neighborhoods come on board, the city network is created and can continue pulling neighboring communities in. Social capital is the only capital that can make this kind of shift, and quickly.
Janine: Here in LA the cost of living is so high, there are so many vulnerable populations (immigrants, vets, underemployed) and the income gap is widening all the time. LA’s is one of the worst cities in regards to income inequality. With it so hard to make ends meet, most people don’t have the time, energy, or idealism required to reach out to others and form deep meaningful bonds, so isolation grows and the city becomes an unfriendly place where to succeed in creating a decent livelihood, providing for yourself and your family and creating a support network of trusted individuals becomes a luxury item. It’s absolutely unacceptable. With that perspective, the most pressing issues are of course just providing easier access to the basics (food, housing, transportation, opportunities to create livelihoods, comfort/friendship) for everyone, and the way I see it, the most efficient way for that to happen is to start with the network of people willing to support and share with each other and then to build up from there.
In the face of climate change and drought, how can your plan for LA increase resiliency?
Nancy: The recent earthquake in Napa got me thinking again about how important community connections are to being more resilient. With climate change we are likely to have more extreme weather conditions, from drought to fires to flooding, and of course, as Californians we always need to be prepared for earthquakes. The cascading impacts of climate change are a reminder of our interconnectedness. It starts with getting to know who is in your community, and then moves to building authentic, trusting relationships. When money is involved, a relationship is more opportunistic and transactional. Instead, we are building on trust and reciprocity. We are learning that we all have skills to offer one another and we are learning to accept that it’s okay to ask for help, that we are all interconnected, and it’s better that way. We are starting to get to know who in our communities have different skills, and we are discovering how much we know.
Janine: When you have a network of individuals, organizations, and city departments all supporting a structure that allows for the efficient distribution of resources, sharing, everything changes, and the community instantly becomes more resilient because the need for resources outside the community shrinks. Burning of fossil fuels decreases because the need for goods diminishes because of swaps and free markets. The need to ship food decreases because of neighborhood fruit harvesting, swaps, and matching people who want to garden with people not using their home’s yards. Plus more people have access to bike shares and carshares and low-cost metro passes.
Artist Bailout event by Echo Park Timebank
How are you involving low income communities of color? What does sharing or new economy look like in those communities?
Janine: ASNTB has an outreach committee dedicated to making sure everyone has a place at the table, their work is all about connecting with under represented groups including people of color and people dealing with extreme poverty throughout all the neighborhoods we work in. As an organization we also partner with groups already working with these populations and try to help them incorporate time banking and other sharing economy tools in to their operations in order to help them further their mission and help the people they serve. Honestly, sharing and the “new” economy probably looks a lot like how they get by already, what we want to do is bring it out of the shadows and widen the support networks for them.
What’s most challenging about implementing this plan in LA and how do plan to address these challenges?
Sarah: Most challenging is engaging communities and supporting emerging leaders. Our current infrastructure does not allow for city-wide growth, so in order to truly effect this plan, high-level partnership will really be a critical component to supporting local communities as we begin to organize.
Janine: The most challenging does seem like working with City Hall, the “sharing economy” is so new to them so explaining it and integrating it with city services (while convincing them it will amplify their work and not compete with it) will be a challenge, but could be such an amazing opportunity! I honestly think, it already resonates with the average citizen, on a gut level.
If LA becomes the Sharing Capital of the US, how do you plan to share your model or support other cities also wanting to create entire sharing cities?
Sarah: We plan to make a digital version of the blueprint designed to help any interested city replicate our process or plan. Available open source and online, this digital blueprint will be educational, but also a viable action plan ready for replication on various levels. Whether strictly on a grassroots, neighborhood scale or on a larger civic level with support from philanthropy, business and nonprofit partnerships, there will be solutions to help guide any interested community leader towards a more connected, resilient community. We would also seek additional funding to help provide the infrastructure needed to give technical support to emerging leaders.
Janine: Also, continuing to work with the SCN through discussions and online forums.
What advice would you give other organizers wanting to begin this work?
Sarah: Just start. Don’t over think it or feel like you need a bunch of money to make something amazing happen. If all you do is start having potlucks in your neighborhood to get to know one another, do it. And instead of making small talk, ask everyone to go around the circle and tell A) what skill they have to offer the neighborhood, B) what help they could use from their neighbors, and C) one thing they would like to see changed in their community. This is basic community organizing at its best…everyone brings something to share, gets fed, makes a new friend and learns how to become more engaged in community. And if you want solutions beyond that, get connected with this movement. In the sharing economy, you’ll find more open doors than brush-offs.
Janine: Also, it’s probably going to be a long journey so bring friends. Partner with like minded folks and organizations whenever you can.
Autumn: Don’t try to do it alone. Let go and have fun.
To read the full plan for Share LA and vote for them, visit the LA 2050 GOOD Challenge.