Act: Inspiration

What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 76 Stephanie Rearick

April 25, 2022

Show Notes

Stephanie Rearick is the Founder and former Co-Director of the Dane County TimeBank (DCTB) – a 2800-member time exchange, and Creative Director of Mutual Aid Networks, a new type of networked cooperative. In addition to her work in timebanking and growing grassroots-up economic and community regeneration, Rearick is co-owner of Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse.

She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • That “mutual aid networks are found throughout all living systems”
  • That engaging in mutual aid “calms your spirit, soothes you, as soon as you can start to feel less alone and less adrift.”
  • That by contrast, our money system “widens the gap between the haves and have nots, and causes a competitive situation”
  • That systems of mutual aid and care are the key safety nets in times of disaster
  • That thriving communities creates “lively humanhood”, beyond basic human livelihood

Connect with Stephanie Rearick






 Vicki Robin

Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project to the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview people I call cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, and asking each one of them our single question: In the midst of all seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?

Today’s guest is Stephanie Rearick. Stephanie is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and is founder and director of the Madison Mutual Aid Network (MAN) Cooperative, and Humans United in Mutual Aid Networks, HUMANS, a new type of network cooperative, creating means for everyone to discover and succeed in the work they want to do with the support of their community.

In addition to her work in growing grassroots up economic and community regeneration, Rearick is co-owner of Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse and also works as a musician. I invited Stephanie to join us for What Could Possibly Go Right? because of her passionate work on mutual aid in all forms and sorts, which is a passion of mine as well. Here’s Stephanie.

Wow. Hello, Stephanie, thank you so much for joining me on What Could Possibly Go Right? You and I met at a conference where you presented your idea of the Mutual Aid Network, aimed at linking people, at least around I think it’s beyond your community, trying to link together these mutual aid societies, if you will, and to strengthen the whole movement.

Mutual aid, at least as I understand it, is an ideal that I have carried. I started time banks in my neighborhood 30 years ago, I started what I call block barter bucks. We had little sheets of paper, where we could account for trades and stuff like that. And I’ve started local currencies, and basically had minimal buy in.

Then I found Freecycle, that just didn’t have any accounting, just the joy of giving and receiving. Now I’m part of a Buy Nothing chapter, and the love along with the trades is palpable, and it keeps growing with every trade. I suspect love is at the root of your affection for mutual aid networks.

So I have a lot of curiosity that I hope you can satisfy, not by answering the questions; just by talking to us. But one question: How is mutual aid like and unlike currencies of accounting? Is it more like the kind of trade in clans and tribes and Indigenous tribal groups? Is it mutual indebtedness? Is it a binding together of a group? Or something more Western, just exchange of goods and services?

I seen them sprout up when resources are limited, like when the currency collapsed in Venezuela. But do they persist beyond the failures of the financial system? I’ve seen them in marginalized communities that have needs for very little money, and I’ve seen them in churches. So I also resonate with your statement on the Mutual Aid Network website, because it speaks to an animating vision I’ve had for Your Money or Your Life for many years.

So here’s the statement. What would it look like if everyone were doing the work they loved, that they felt called to do? What if everyone had the opportunity to build their skills to the maximum capabilities, and then apply them to making their communities whole and beautiful?

So maybe you can’t answer any of these questions at least directly, and you are welcome to take the conversation wherever you will. I am so curious where you will take our one question. In this time of great change and realignment, what could possibly go right?

Stephanie Rearick

Thank you. Well, one of the things that could go right is paying attention to our past and learning from it and valuing what’s come before. I’ll say since you mentioned Your Money or Your Life and the time banks you started; one thing that can go right is learning from people like you, which I have. I read Your Money or Your Life in the 90s and it really helped guide me to pursue the life I want to do, and I’m very grateful.

I’ve just reflected recently on the fact that I’ve lived like a person who made a lot of money without making any money, just by directly exchanging my skills and my passions. I’ve been able to travel around the world. Neighborly economics actually gave me the opportunity to co-own a small little coffee house that I still do to this day, which we’re able to make into a cultural venue, bringing people, performers who don’t necessarily have commercial popularity; it’s never been what I’ve been into. I make music myself. I coined a term for the genre called Unpop, because it’s decidedly not popular, although some small groups of people like it a lot. And I do, and it’s important for me to be able to express what’s inside me, and I would like for everyone to have that opportunity.

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So I’m really glad that you selected that quote, because that’s one of my favorites. That’s one of my favorite questions to ask. One of my former co-workers wrote that, and I’ve always loved that. And yes, we can find out. So one of the things that I think is really essential is to recognize that mutual aid networks are throughout all living systems, all animal, plants and mineral planetary systems. And of course, each one of our bodies is in constant interaction with our surroundings.

I think it’s actually been deliberately forgotten, an imposed forgetting, on this current Western civilization culture, however we want to call it. I really do see that there are systems that have been put in place to cause us to forget not only the direct propaganda, but the money system that’s based on bank debt, that automatically through the interest process widens the gap between haves and have nots and causes a competitive situation.

I feel that by creating that, when you were talking about starting time banks and I also started a time bank, which has morphed into completely different things now, including the Mutual Aid Networks, providing those kinds of experiential tools like your Buy Nothing club as well. I’ve found that me and most people I’ve seen engage with those, it’s like, Ah, it comes naturally, it calms your spirit, it soothes you, as soon as you can start to feel less alone and less adrift.

For me, I’ve ended up taking a number of involuntary big drops in my income. Also, besides choosing not to follow the money, I’ve had some money abandon me over the last few years. And it’s really scary. There’s a certain amount of once you do it, whether you have to do it or whether you don’t, you realize all the safety nets, all the invisible safety nets that are social. Those are what are the only thing that matters anyhow. That’s always what comes to save us in a natural disaster, in a created disasters, such as a war. It is those systems of mutual aid and care. In my view, it’s this deliberate causing us to forget that; that’s the issue.

When you’re talking about the time banks and how they don’t get beyond gardening and massage. One thing I like to say to people is, well, what’s wrong with gardening and massage? I would love to feel like I could afford to get a regular massage, and I’d be healthier for it, I might save some money on my Western medicine healthcare expenses. And that’s what mutual aid networks are about; valuing those things and making them visible, using things like timebanking to catalyze and reward exchanges and care and creativity and civic engagement and community building. Then connecting that more with our other parts of our work life and other parts of how we meet our needs.

So for example, in the Mutual Aid Network framework that we’ve created… I’m going to pause for a second I want to acknowledge that the term mutual aid network has really caught on during the pandemic, and it is not generally, I don’t think, always understood to mean how we’re applying it.

So our form of mutual aid network, we coined back in around 2013, deliberately chose the initials MAN, because we want to be the new “The Man”; have your dream life, being your full human self, as caring as you want to be, as family oriented as you want to be, as antisocial as you want to be. You do what you want to, you apply your strengths, you build them to their maximum capabilities, you do the work that you want to do, you have incentives through time exchange, through other forms of compensation, through getting paid money. You have incentives to do some of the work that isn’t so totally appealing or might be more difficult, and we combine them together.

Our form of mutual aid network is a type of cooperative; legally constructed. We are a cooperative incorporated in the state of Wisconsin. Right now we have two. One is a global cooperative network that anyone can join called Humans United in Mutual Aid Networks. The idea is there’s so many things going on. Again, we need to see them and value them, and learn from them, and be open to that. And understand that we’re quite young, that we’re quite new to taking an approach that encompasses what’s good about different old ways and also implements what’s available to us now because of new technologies, whether it’s Internet, whether it’s new understandings of how we codify and apply our values and principles.

So we have a global network about learning from each other and actively supporting each other through the same means. Then we have a local cooperative network, and a lot of other places have their own local networks, too. So the idea is we come together as a coop with very open borders and very open invitations, very deliberate invitations to everyone, especially people who tend to get marginalized and left out of the dominant economy because of race, class, gender, disability, the different kinds of abilities.

So you create very open invitations and active invitations, and you have that be a key part of your principles that everyone’s bound to. Then we collectively steward time exchange, so exchanging an hour per hour of our time and talents with each other. Also direct swap; so that’s one thing that we like to do, is have swaps where people can bring whatever they have that they don’t want anymore, and exchange it for whatever they need.

Also, just commons building. We really know that there’s a real need to really build our muscles for sharing. Sharing is the purest and most effective way to create abundance in our view. But then also other forms of mutual credit, different kinds of currencies, so we can engage businesses. We also, like the mutual aid societies in African American communities in the Depression and before, and a lot of immigrant communities all over the world, people are in the practice of pooling their money and allocating it to who needs it most at a given time.

So we’re just about connecting those things and connecting them with peer-to-peer kind of ways to manage work, so we can do more things like care and creativity, whether it’s commercially viable or not, and have a good living; a good livelihood. We started calling it a lively humanhood. We don’t need to set our sights at a basic human livelihood provided by governments. I think that’s actually quite unappealing to me.

We want a lively humanhood, where we count on our neighbors, our communities. We’re building thriving communities. Again, creating opportunities for everyone to develop their skills to their maximum capabilities, apply them to making their communities whole and beautiful, whatever that means to you. So we also just find it very essential that in doing this, we are directly supporting and deciding and agreeing to adhere to sets of cooperative principles.

So those are drawn from timebanking principles, that all work is valuable, that everyone has something to offer, that reciprocity is essential, but also principles of governance of the commons that we found from Elinor Ostrom, being very clear about rights and responsibilities. With commons, there’s shared responsibility, and we really just need to exercise these muscles.

So a lot of what we have recognized and are applying is, changing the economy is a community organizing effort. It’s not a technocratic thing. There are technical aspects that can really support it, but it’s really about networks and about value and how we value each other. So we’re working on building networks of real trust that then connect across networks to create trust between them, and we see it as looking to create a neighborly global economy.

Vicki Robin

Wow, I’m so curious about so many things you said. One is, that’s the sort of your creation and baseline, which I think is so beautiful. I want to copy it all, just sort of download your entire website and just put our community’s name on it, because the principles are so right. You’ve done some heavy lifting about how to join time banking, with cooperatives, with transforming the economy.

So I wonder, part of what we’re looking at with What Could Possibly Go Right? is what’s emerging out of the midst of this massive change we’re going through? And not to cheerlead your project, but what really do you see emerging? One thing you said is that during the pandemic, mutual aid networks took off. I can imagine now with the sort of galloping apart of the top and bottom, that there’s a lot of interest in that.

It’s almost like you have to grind the wheels 180 degrees, to be able to see how, like you said for your own personal life, to see how your needs are going to be met in a cooperative system, when you’ve been trained to not trust each other. I can just see the grinding of the gears that necessity is creating. So anyway, just look on the near term horizon or the current horizon. What do you see emerging?

Stephanie Rearick

Well, the great resignation is a huge deal. The fact that people have seen the cracks to the point where they’re willing to reject it and take the lead without knowing what they’re leaping into, is a pretty special moment. What I’ve seen, just having operated in this complementary economy world for a long time, is completely different kinds of willingness for people to come together.

There are a lot of different software projects, for example. It’s all over the place, people making blockchain stuff, et cetera, and that’s been going on for a couple of decades now that I’ve been involved. There’s like some software competition, everyone’s looking to make a thing that they’re going to sell and everyone will jump on to. There are just different levels of connection across projects now where people are actually working together to make open source ecosystems of software that can support it.

Then things like platform cooperatives that have been kind of centered in a tech kind of world and different open source software worlds, are now connecting more with creative worlds and timebanking community exchange worlds. So I see that stuff happening, sort of an infrastructure level. On the ground, I just see a lot more kind of desperation for figuring out new labor solutions.

So one of the things that’s emerging here, and we’ll see how easily we can pull it off as we’re looking at how to create like a labor pool – I’m kind of jokingly thinking of it as like Ghostbusters, because ghosting at jobs is so common now, coming to an interview and then never showing up again. But creating different kinds of open cooperatives where people can be working at different places, kind of vouched for, training up in a variety of different ways, so they can have more variety and flexibility in their schedule and there can be more ability for people running businesses to get their actual staffing needs met. So that’s something that’s been emerging here.

In Hull UK, there’s a sister site that we have there, based in a time bank there that’s now the Humane Mutual Aid Network. They had been doing these giant feasts where they would feed 1500 people at once for no money exchanged through the time bank and through donations of food from local farms. And they’ve shifted to working in refugee communities, so refugees will work with members to create a feast and get a chance to use some of their culinary skills and share that make new inroads with the local community. There’s, unfortunately, more and more needs to connect with and support refugees.

So that’s another thing that’s been emerging, is people looking at how to use mutual aid, really for mutual aid. The term mutual aid has been applied a lot to things that look more like charity lately, and there are more understandings emerging, I think, and a little bit more connection emerging to see how mutual aid efforts can really go toward long lasting solidarity based mutual aid.

Some other things emerging are networks to support people with addictions, for harm reduction, especially as fentanyl is taking a greater hold. So there’s another sister site that’s based in a health center that works with a lot of people who are suffering addiction and houselessness, and also people coming back from war. There’s a big focus on that kind of peer support for mental health.

Here, another thing that’s been emerging is, especially since COVID, our city sanctioned some encampments for people who are houseless, and then our city has actually gotten a property and is building some tiny or home temporary housing. So we’re connecting with that to figure out how to create some processes whereby people can find temporary housing, moving from tinier homes to tiny homes to figuring out some real affordable accessible housing, by again connecting a lot of different models; land trust, cooperative. Just a variety of of models that are applied in different ways to really get serious about supporting people who aren’t adequately housed, and creating housing that’s actively accessible.

Vicki Robin

Wow, it’s sort of like watching these lights, that have been independent lights. Like, Oh, affordable housing, and then seeing that… They talk in movements about intersectionality, and it’s almost like that. I mean, it probably is that; that there is a condition that has probably always been with us, but it’s very evident now that there’s a whole class of people who are being left behind by the high techno fix society. We’re always promised that the technology will trickle down, and everybody will have it better. The interstate highway, you’ll all be able to have cars.

There’s always a promise that is made that, after we’ve made our profit, there’s going to be a trickle down. So we’ll need to be like baby birds with their mouths open, just waiting for it to trickle in. And there is trickle down, there is trickle down. My phone is trickle down. This is trickle down.

But it’s really interesting to see how, what I thought about when you’re talking, about AAA. I thought about, that’s a mutual aid network. That’s like an addiction-to-anything mutual aid network. It’s persisted and it’s run, as you say, by principles and patterns, rituals, and principles, just sufficient that they can work. You know, the thing I created years ago, the Conversation Cafes, same thing. Free for everybody, here’s a methodology you can use in your community, to break down barriers between people who don’t see the world the same way, but we can be in a shared space of curiosity and learn from one another.

It’s like unschooling. There’s something that I’m hearing in what you’re saying, that is almost like a figure of ground shift, that we’re starting to become more confident that our needs across the board will be met. One of the things I’m curious about is this sort of Gen Z, Millennial tech thing, like the marriage of the blockchain, which is an accounting system with mutual aid.

I mean, right now, I see like, we have Facebook groups and the Facebook groups support mutual aid and colearning and swapping stuff and stuff like that. Then this blockchain, is it going to bring in an accounting such that the dynamics of the money systeml reenter mutual aid? Is it going to do that? Or is it going to just give a level of trust for people to jump in and participate? I’m not going to lose anything, I’m not going to be taken advantage of. What’s your sense of the blockchain as an ally and as a pitfall?

Stephanie Rearick

My sense is much more as a pitfall, I think the blockchain can be an ally, just for providing a technical kind of backbone for some of the accounting that happens in mutual credit. So we’re all about mutual credit.

I think blockchain and especially as it’s pitched with currencies as that, of course, take Bitcoin is the primary example. It’s not inherently evil, or anything. And Bitcoin is speculative. To me, Bitcoin embodies things about the money system that are wrong. The way that it’s mined to me is wrong, and the way it’s pitched to me is wrong, which is that a debt should be recorded and maintained permanently. It’s kind of like to me it replicates the problem that became clear for me in David Graebers book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, when he describes a period in history where suddenly debt laws were on the books, fairly newly, and sort of like the horror of lawmakers seeing that people actually put the debt over everything, and were selling their children into slavery. There had been a tacit understanding that human values come first.

Now, as part of why we’ve come to realizing our principles need to be spelled out now and forevermore, and actually, when I mentioned the economy, being a community organising effort, I’m going to reframe that as a grassroots education effort. I feel that we need to rival religion for how they’ve cornered the market on education. Everyone needs to hear about it at every age, all the time, wherever they are. You need to not be able to escape learning about our systems of exchange and sharing and getting a handle on the way that debt and and this kind of money system is only about subjugation.

I’m not saying that, owing each other in reciprocity is different from that kind of subjugation, control, domination. So those are the reasons that I think it’s dangerous to focus on a solely technocratic level. It’s really important to realize that technology needs to serve the human functions and the principles, and that you’re always developing low and no tech methods for doing the same thing. The technology is just to ease the flow, but it needs to never be dependent on people interacting with that technology for their participation.

There’s so much potential for things like time exchange, time banking to be linked to a social credit systems and big data and surveillance in a way that we are contributing to our chains rather than breaking them. So that is a really key piece of mutual aid networks. We have autonomy and independence and global values upheld locally, all that stuff is really important to us. It’s very essential that we’re hyper aware of the different pitfalls, and we’re always in conversation and learning from each other and open to constant evaluation and openness about these things. Always going back to the principles is really important.

Vicki Robin

And something else, I’m gonna be a little candid here. The interesting thing about Your Money or Your Life and there’s like, a million people on the financial independence subreddit. I mean, I thought this the book had disappeared, and then in 2017, I discovered this whole new iteration.

But it really is – and I hear it in you – it’s really based in the old model. There’s a sub-community called Socially Conscious FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early), that is struggling with the incongruity between understanding the ills of capitalism and the fact that they’ve learned how to be good capitalists. So, their differentiation is that they know how much is enough and they value time over money. So it’s a step, but it’s not the whole thing.

I’m soaked in that. So I realized when we had a time bank, that I didn’t have enough time, or enough time to do the exchanges, in relationship with the amount of income I have with the flow I have. I think part of this is that at this point, in the shared consciousness of Western society, as long as we’re on the tip of the money system, this other system looks like it takes a lot of time and complexity.

I’ve seen cohousing communities generally evolve into neighborhoods. The mutual aid aspect of it, eventually the mindset of it – I have just a little bit of something that I have control over, I’m going to tend to that well, I’m going to share the surplus, but I have a door to that I can close.

I’m just interested in that edge. Is the interest in mutual aid networks increasing because the financial security, sovereignty is decreasing? Is that what we’re seeing? And is it a class issue? If more people fall off the bottom, are they going to only trade with people in their former status class? It’s very interesting, these class and embedment in the economy issues.

Stephanie Rearick

Well, that is one of the key reasons that we looked to create the kind of structure we did is, I was running a time bank that was thriving. What I found in my experience, is that when timebanking was functioning really well, it was around a project that was really important to people. I realized that people are used to having their currency tied to their work, and the mutual aid network piece is really aiming to make it so you can see how your work life can be designed with all these tools.

In the cooperative structure, we have ways to exchange different kinds of credit for other things. So we have this poshterity budgeting tool, how to have a posh life on an austerity budget. The idea is, if you were maybe in the situation you were in, you might have had plenty of money, and you felt time poor; the idea with the poshterity budget is, for example, you might be able to use four hours a week for respite care for your mother. So you can put four hours of your gross pay into the communities common fund and use four hours to get the care for your mother.

Those are ways that we’ve created in the cooperative structure to break down some of the barriers, but put them in a social context. So we don’t mess with the integrity of time banking, we don’t like make an hour always tagged to a price, but it’s a way that people can joyfully and voluntarily redistribute their wealth, I see it as a way you can choose to do to each according to need from each according to ability. We just do it because we know that we would like to, instead of espousing these ideals.

Then I’ve asked groups of people with higher incomes before, who thinks we need wealth redistribution? And everyone raises their hand. What are we waiting for? Would you like to have the government mandate that for you? Like, what are we waiting for? So yeah, so this is what so we’ve come up with some ideas of like how to do things, and we’re going to experiment with them here. But a lot of it is like throwing out the ideas also and hoping people experiment with them in their own context, under their own terms, and just share that back.

Vicki Robin

That is so cool, because it reminds me of another project I did, where I just got a prize and funding for an idea called the Care Commons, which was really based on the Japanese model of the children are supposed to come home and take care of the parents and the parents are older now they have jobs, they can’t do it.

So the idea was to create an accounting system where you could bank hours of care for yourself in the future, through aiding people who need care now. So it wasn’t working just on the generosity of soul, but it was the idea of really an accounting system. But that I could provide care for somebody here and buy care for my sister in New York. It never got off the ground, because I’m a great idea person, but I’m not really a great manifestation person. I mean, I can manifest it in a certain degree. and then I just don’t know how to do it.

But I’m sure the idea is percolating in a million places, that sort of thing. I just love what you’re doing, because it’s not ceding power to the dominant system. But it’s not fighting it; it’s just doing what everybody says we ought to do, which is Buckminster Fuller said: Don’t fight the dominant system, just create one that everybody wants to be in.

So I mean, I think that we should start to wind this up. I’m not going to cut it off instantly, because it’s so good. But I think what I’m getting is that you’re painting a picture. You’re not only painting a picture of what’s possible out there; you’re painting a picture of the possibility of mind that sits in this truth, and keeps pumping out new possibilities. It’s not like, Oh, I tried a time bank didn’t work, okay, over? No, we’re just gonna keep iterating. We’re gonna keep iterating around objections. So I just wanted to know if you have any wind up thoughts for us.

Stephanie Rearick

It just reminded me of the emergent space that needs to be there for things to grow. And you just described so many ways that that happens. I was really excited when you said the Care Commons, because we actually have a dream project called that on our mutual aid platform. Yeah, people are dreaming of the same thing all over and it makes me think of the Yoko Ono quote: A dream we dream alone is only a dream. We dream together, that’s reality.

Vicki Robin

Ahhh. That’s it, I’m satisfied. It’s like you talked about this sort of shedding from your shoulders, that sort of squaring yourself against the world, to be sure that your needs are met. That in the presence of mutual aid, something comes down off the shoulders that didn’t belong there in the first place. Yeah. I love this. Thank you so much.

Stephanie Rearick

Thank you. It’s been a total pleasure.

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: Mutual Aid Networks, solidarity economics