Napa’s Time Bank One Year Later


I recently heard someone refer to the Napa Agricultural Preserve as a successful “social experiment.” The Ag Preserve is a radical—as in 1960s radical—land-use law that has for more than four decades kept this North Bay county mostly in vines and trees rather than strip malls and housing. It has cultivated beauty and wealth where it would not be if a few folks hadn’t stepped beyond the social-complacency zone.

The Napa Time Bank we started over a year ago is another social experiment that cultivates beauty and wealth where it might not otherwise be. Just as radical as the Ag Preserve, it challenges people to step outside the “I’m fine, don’t bother me” zone. Even progressives have to squirm a little until they get used to the idea of creating community by exchanging favors, sans legal tender. In a time bank, you give something you like to give—such as French lessons, dog walking or yard work—and you ask for something you like to get, such as a massage, math tutoring or guitar lessons. Giving one hour deposits one time dollar in your time bank account, and receiving an hour withdraws one time dollar from your account, via an online database. So why do people hesitate to participate?

“First of all, you’re kind of exposing yourself to a certain degree,” says chiropractor Debbie Seale, 51, who joined the Napa Time Bank six months ago. “I’ve always done trades. It reduces our living expenses and it’s how I get my hair colored, for instance. But I felt a little uncomfortable when I thought about people doing things for me like yard work. I thought, do I want to have them see my home?”

But Seale was determined to overcome her fears, because her instinct told her that the time bank would increase her sense of community. “That’s why we moved to Napa from San Francisco,” she says. “We wanted to experience that sense of community.” So Seale started out in the time bank by doing her first time trade with a friend. That was safe. It took her several months before she made herself try an exchange with someone she had never met, a man in his 20s. Seale arranged the meeting in a public place.

“We met here at Peet’s,” Seale explains over a cup of coffee. “I taught him how to knit,” she adds, beaming. Before their meeting, Seale had instructed her new student to buy some yarn and needles. She recalls his enthusiasm. “He brought all this yarn!” she laughs. “He was really into it.” He was, in fact, so into it that he showed up for their second lesson with a booklet he designed to record knitting project data such as yarns and patterns used. He had made one booklet for her and one for himself.

“The cool thing was,” Seale says, “that while we were sitting here I saw others I knew and I introduced him to them. I felt like I was inviting him into my circle.” The joy on her face is telling.

Although a time bank hour is not “paid back” to the same person from whom one earned one’s time dollar, it does happen once in a while—if the right opportunity presents itself. For Seale, it did. “We talked about him teaching me how to bead,” she says, grinning widely. “I’ve always wanted to learn how to bead.”

Seale and I finish our chat and our coffee, and I leave pondering the difficulty of social experiments that create wealth and beauty. Local history records the problems they had creating the Agricultural Preserve almost half a century ago. People resist change.

As a co-coordinator of the Napa Time Bank, I am puzzling over how to get myself and others to go, as Seale phrased it, where “you’re kind of exposing yourself.” It’s been said: “Life begins outside your comfort zone.” Sustainable community begins there too.

OK, I’ll take a step: Any risk-taking, idea-generators out there want to bank a time dollar?