Some of the leaders of Madison’s Allied Community Coop (ACC) had the great fortune to take a learning trip to St. Louis and New Orleans. Thanks so much to the Willy Street Coop, Rebecca Kemble, and our other generous donors who helped make it happen!
Coop leaders who went were Cassandra Sonko, ACC Board President; Sina Davis, ACC Board member and former ACC Coordinator; Gloria Farr, ACC Board Member and representative of Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development and Allied Wellness Center; Lavern Harrison, newly hired ACC staff; and me, ACC Board Treasurer and representative of Dane County TimeBank.
We had a very full agenda! First we had breakfast with the fantastic Renee Marver, one of the organizers of the very first modern timebank in the United States, Grace Hill Settlement House’s MORE Time Dollar Exchange. The neighbors and staff at Grace Hill worked together in 1981 to invent Service Credits, which became known as time dollars and then timebank hours over time. But it was their own creative approach to making up for big cuts in government support of vulnerable people, and the massive success they had is a testament to the strength of that vision. Renee was able to share a lot of their story and the awesome programs they ran, which included a Neighborhood College, six timebank stores, support for vulnerable neighbors, inter-generational care and exchange, and much more. The MORE exchange had tens of thousands of members in neighborhoods throughout St. Louis in its heyday.
After changes in agency leadership much of that activity ceased, but the Patch Neighborhood Center is still going strong. We visited and learned about their timebank store, where neighbors get new toiletries and cleaning supplies for the hours they work in the community, the “Little Macy’s” thrift store where they sell secondhand clothing to support their operational costs, their inter-generational gatherings that connect seniors and kids, their daycare, the field trips they organize, and mostly, the fact that the neighbors run the show. There are a couple staff who started as participants in activities there and have been around 12+ years – including Debbie, who I’ve met at a couple conferences and our previous field trip back in 2007. Great to see people doing what they love!
The leaders of St. Louis’ wonderful timebank, the Cowry Collective, and a new MORE, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, organized two discussions with us. The first was focused on Restorative Justice and included members of the Coalition to Abolish the Prison Industrial Complex, plus people active in juvenile justice as advocates and also as professionals (an arts teacher at the juvenile detention center which seems open to innovation). We had a very stimulating discussion where each of our individual experiences were able to spawn ideas relevant to each other’s projects. For example, we learned about ‘neighborhood accountability boards’ being put into place by St. Louis’ formal juvenile justice system. Pieces of that structure could apply here in Madison, but initiated at the community level which will give us more freedom to keep kids’ needs front and center. We were able to suggest some ways to involve more youth as leaders there and to advocate for some creative approaches that could involve timebanking to help build skills and resources.
The next day we were joined by a few of the same people and a couple new ones for a conversation about Mutual Aid Networks and how that structure could be applied to help us all take our work farther. We talked with attendees about the MAN Up Summit in August and about pursuing further collaborations. We’re all excited to see what unfolds.
Immediately after the MAN discussion we hit the road to get a start on the drive to beautiful New Orleans. It’s 10 hours from St. Louis and we decided to stop near Memphis, so we could take a quick trip by Graceland in the morning just for fun.
Then we arrived in New Orleans just in time for the NOLA Timebank potluck that Gretchen Zalkind, NOLA TimeBank founder and coordinator, organized in conjunction with our visit. This was great! There were organizers of local cooperative businesses, our hosts at Conserve Our Resource Economy (CORE), people ready to engage in the neighborhood in new ways. We shared a lot of our experience with Allied Coop and had open discussion about how we could all take our work farther.
The next morning we visited Backstreet Cultural Museum, one of my very favorite places and where I first learned of Mutual Aid Societies and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, my inspiration for the cooperative savings and community investment pools piece of Mutual Aid Networks. I was really excited to take my fellow ACC leaders there so they could see the real deal, and think about how they want to apply it in their own lives and neighborhood. We got a great tour and learned a lot. Plus we had the good fortune to have a Jazz Funeral pass nearby while we were there. The museum guides went out with us to see it, and told us that jazz funerals welcome everyone to join in celebration of the life of the person about to be buried. It was very festive and very beautiful.
Later that day I left my cohorts to get some rest and hang out with a Louisiana-based friend while I went to meet Anna Boyer (part of NOLA Timebank also) at the C4Tech & Design Coop where she’s a worker owner. Very cool cooperative business begun in 2008, and I learned details about how it’s run that will really come in handy for our various MAN efforts. C4 Tech has three divisions – a computer repair shop that mainly caters to neighborhood residents (and resonates with a long-standing plan to work with our local Union Tech Coop to build computer repair capacity in Allied Drive). They have a website and graphic design department that works with businesses, non-profits, and educational institutions. And they have an IT support department that works with similar clients from around the world. Each division has a separate but overlapping budget and each division manages its own revenue itself, paying agreed-upon base wages and distributing a quarterly profit share.
We spent the rest of the evening seeing the sights of NOLA, then hit the road the next morning for the epic 15-hour drive home. I walked in my door at 2am. Good times!
And good thing we had this fun break, and learned so much about our potential. Because the Allied Coop is the only applicant for a $300K forgivable loan the city is offering to subsidize a grocery store in the Allied Drive neighborhood. The RFP they put out doesn’t completely match up with our vision and circumstances, but being the only applicant we’ll be in good shape to have some serious discussions with the City about how they could help us move forward with a neighborhood-grown and -owned project.
Thanks for reading this massive missive. More soon on continuing developments…