This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Edgar Cahn, now 82, began his career as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy. Always passionate about civil rights, a heart attack in 1980 gave him a new perspective that led Cahn to create a new tool for social justice called time banking.
A time bank uses time credits as a medium of exchange rather than money. Within the system, every hour is valued the same, regardless of who contributes the time.
Cahn says he has now documented 1,000 time banks around the world, including about half that total here in the U.S. Many operate on a software platform created by TimeBanks USA, the nonprofit Cahn founded.
When Cahn had the heart attack in 1980, his heart was so damaged that the cardiologist told him he likely wouldn’t live more than two years and would only have the capacity to function actively about two hours per day. He began thinking about all the ways he could still make a difference with his severely limited time.
This got Cahn thinking about other people who are often considered useless, seniors, children, and teenagers, for instance, who are often dismissed because they don’t earn a wage.
Cahn obviously outlived his doctor’s expectations and says he limits himself to 16 hours per day, seven days per week of work.
Mashi Blech, one of Cahn’s early disciples and TimeBank director for ArchCare, has been leading the operations since 1987, long before it became part of ArchCare. She says, “What keeps me excited every day for the past three decades is seeing the power of time banking and its substantive, often life-changing impact on individual members, organizations and communities.”
Cahn shared the example of someone who banks time and needs spinal surgery. Following surgery, someone else in the system will come in to help her eat breakfast, brush her teeth and hair.
Separately, in Chicago, 127 schools nearly eliminated special ed by having fifth graders help the third graders learn the alphabet. The kids earned credits that allowed them to receive a recycled computer from the system.
In another example Cahn shared, teens serving on a youth court jury in Washington, D.C., helped reduce recidivism. The young people were able to sniff out lies and get to the truth more quickly and effectively than adults. They also understood context better, appreciating challenges the other teens faced at home and school. Ultimately, the teens were granted sentencing authority and would sentence the teens to a diversion program to do community service to make restitution for property damaged or stolen. One of the harshest penalties: serving on the jury, which required teens to give up their Saturday mornings. Cahn calls that “capital punishment for a teenager.”
The program reduced rearrests from 34 to 6%, he says.
Blech says she sees similar impacts:
At ArchCare, we have worked hard to make our TimeBank accessible and engage those with more limited resources. A large percentage of our members are immigrants with very low income. Many of them are seniors in their 70s and 80s.
The TimeBank tool is equalizing the playing field, empowering people who have long existed on the fringes of society to help themselves, help one another and become much more integrated into the fabric of their communities. In addition to giving them access to services they could not otherwise afford, they feel useful and needed and report improvements in their health and emotional well-being because they are part of our timebank community.
Time banking grew out of what Cahn calls “three discoveries.”
First, was his observation that the economy doesn’t value contributions fairly. For instance, he says, “The amount of work that it takes to enable a family to keep an elder person out of a nursing home is now valued at some $500 billion.”
All sorts of things don’t get valued our current economic system, despite having tremendous value. Most notably, the unpaid work of mothers to care for, education and otherwise support their children.
The second discovery was the idea that the economic system values things that are scarce. People are plentiful, abundant, ubiquitous. Such things are virtually worthless and, in some cases, treated as nuisances. Cahn wanted to create a system that valued the intrinsic worth of a human being—and all human beings equally.
His third discovery was the idea of co-production. He points out that while working as a law professor—which he still does—he could give a brilliant lecture but the outcomes on the exams depended at least as much on the students. Viewing the students as partners in co-production of learning created a new paradigm that helped to define the time banking model.
Blech says, “We can’t achieve social justice simply by delivering services. We need to enlist those who we are helping as partners and collaborators.”
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