Kola Nut Collaborative 


Chicago, Illinois

Kola nuts

Mutual support network of people engaged in reciprocal exchange of services, skills, and goods through a timebank where the currency is an hour of time for everyone. Through membership in the Kola Nut Collaborative, people create and strengthen community bonds, create economic freedom by providing an alternative means to get needs and desires met, and encourage creativity in redefining self-sufficiency, interdependence and valuation of time. 

October 4, 2020

Cooperative Journal

What inspired the development of the Kola Nut Collaborative?

Mike Strobe

In 2008, when my daughter went to school at Betty Shabazz Charter Academy which is an afrocentric school in Chicago, I was on the parent council there and a group came to the parent council called Black Oaks Center for Sustainable and Renewable Living. It's a group that’s based in Pembroke township which is a largely Black farming community. They wanted to launch something called the healthy food hub attached to the school. It was really a way to bring healthy produce and dried goods into the school among this community that was known to eat those things, they were vegetarian or vegan and sometimes organic. As part of the parent council I helped to launch this healthy food hub and I ended up spending 10 years with the hub.

Near the end we were trying to sustain the healthy food hub and looking for models that would help us bring people in the door to support this effort that  only had 10 people on staff and no one was really paid. We wanted to build a model in other communities and we couldn't actually build the capacity to do that and there’s not a lot of money in food. We thought about timebanking as a way to really build participation as well as a way to incentivize people to participate in what is a meaningful socially impactful project. It's not one that is necessarily generating a lot of financial capital so that's what inspired the journey of the Kola Nut Collaborative. We also drew inspiration from the way the Cowry Collective in St. Louis was doing timebanking. It was connected to social movement, social justice, and a culturally relevant analysis of what an economy looks like. We were inspired by the way they were doing timebanking and wanted to launch here. 

What are the different forms of capital and which type of capital does Timebanking fulfill?

I guess you are referring to the eight forms of capital model, one of them I refer to often is from Appleseed Permaculture but the Aspen institute has another one from their wellworks model which is also about building resilient communities. The Appleseed permaculture model talks about financial, intellectual, living, material, cultural, experiential, social, and spiritual. I make sure that I keep those in my head because it's a part of my presentation pitch. Money is one-eighth  of that, it’s only one part of what all our communities have to offer. I often talk about timebanking as seven-eights of that.

The people that show up inside of a timebank are giving ideas, they are giving their intellect away in exchange for a time trade. They are giving living capital, sometimes you just need a caring companion to sit with you. They are giving material capital, maybe they have a space like the North Park Nature Center where you can come and do a workshop and they timebank the space. There's cultural capital, maybe you know a language and you can share it with someone. Experiential capital, I know nothing about building garages but the guys that built this one put four walls up in 8 hours, there’s that experience of carpentry that I would like to know more in depth. Socially its relational, the relationships we have and who we know. Then there’s spiritual maybe you know about meditation or you have some other ideas around mysticism that you want to share. All of these things can be represented in timebanking in a much more robust way than you can do with money. 

AppleSeed Permaculture eight forms of capital 

How is the concept of value challenged through Timebanking?

I did a presentation at Lincoln Park Zoo as a part of a partnership with a group called Hive Chicago which is a group of connected learners or connected instructors taking youth on really connected learning experiences throughout the city. They are educators in nature centers or computer labs - things like that, that are really expanding the learning experience for young people throughout the city.

When I was at that training at Lincoln Park I had my friend Sia come through who is studying neurobiology at John Hopkins. While we were there Sia threw out the TNT (dinomite) in the room, she threw out that word decolonization, she was like we got to decolonize labor and the ways that we think about value in the money economy.

If I am a lawyer, I spent my ten years going through law school, getting the bar, I did my work so I expect to be paid $100,000/hr or whatever it may be. If I am an eldercare worker you only need to pay me $17/hr. The interesting thing there is eldercare insurance is sky high but somehow people don’t get paid much. The inequity is thin and the timebank is really about people challenging that inequity in themselves. When they come into the timebank one hour is worth one hour and that’s for everybody, no matter who’s hour is being shared. We’re coming on an egalitarian basis and saying no matter what you are doing with your hour it is just one hour, you didn’t spend anymore time doing that thing. Now if you spent some prep time you could certainly put that in.

By equalizing the value we’re creating a different type of playing field for people to exchange on. I had this question come up in our orientations, how do I exchange hours or how do I think about giving hours. What I tell people directly is that you cannot ask for more hours than you spent doing the thing. If someone wants to give you more hours because they really appreciate you like if I had someone come in and organize my basement one day, that’s such a service that if they did it in two hours and I probably would have spent five then I will give them the five. Don’t ask for more hours than you worked because that person has to make up those hours on their own. So the hours that they are giving you they have to give out five hours into the timebank themselves, that’s how we can think about value. You can appreciate someone’s value more but you can’t ask for whatever value you think you are worth in more hours. 

What is your approach to connecting people within the community to an alternative form of currency?

It takes all kinds to make a community, there is someone that if they did not cut that park across the street, some part of my community would falter. The young people may not want to play over there and the park may become overgrown. Although the money economy is valuing them below someone doing IT consultation, if that didn't happen, if the folks who come here on Thursday to empty those trash cans just stopped showing up the community could fall apart.

In terms of connecting people to these visions of an alternative economy, when I started in 2017 to launch the Kola Nut Collaborative I did it wrong. I was a part of the permaculture guild that Black Oaks was launching at the time. Permaculture being a form of sustainable agriculture that really thinks about design in partnership with nature. I was teaching a social permaculture section of the course. Just as permaculture thinks of agriculture with a design ethos, social permaculture thinks about how we design our relationship and behaviors in our communities that are fulfilling, sustainable, and nourishing.

When I started pitching the idea of the timebank I was about the numbers, economy, having a slide deck that had sixty impactful slides, taking people back to the Yap islands, and talk about the gift economy with the Navajo. I thought that I had to go through the entire history of the gift economy, solidarity economy, and exchange to get people to understand the concept. What it's really about is the embodied experience, I have learned this deeply from my friends that do somatics or yoga, folks who are in the body who have said something in my body is not feeling that. I began to design experiences, things like the Time Salon that I do every month where people can really have conversations about how they feel about money, how they feel about the economy, and what does the economy mean to them. Also, I began to pick up on models like the offers and needs market pioneered by Post Growth Institute. It is like a lightning round session where people would go through and pitch something they have to offer and people for maybe three rounds and then switch it to what’s something you need and then people would go around and they’ll exchange their needs.

These facilitation methods really get people into the space of realizing I have more gifts than I think, I have something that I don’t do professionally. Someone who really likes to make candles and would never go out and sell would have the opportunity to make it if someone asked them to do it as a favor. Those are the sorts of things where you can get people thinking, it's not necessarily tricking them into an economy, it’s just saying there’s a way of exchanging over here that you have tried but maybe you can do it more and use that other economy less. For me that’s how I get people to engage in that but showing and reflecting to them here are ways we are already doing it.  

How does time banking build community resilience?

I’ll relate it to what happened immediately after COVID with the mutual aid organizing work. The mutual aid work started a little bit scattered and then they immediately started disseminating this model of pod mapping that has become very well known nationally as a strategy for how mutual aid groups organize themselves. The concept is simple in that you begin on your block. Mariame Kaba talks a lot about this in her interviews and writings on the subject. You begin on your block, door knocking and connecting with neighbors. You’re weaving  together amongst your neighborhood and you're building a pod right there where you are. Hopefully eventually there’s a pod on the next block in the next neighborhood and those pods would connect. For me, I actually envisioned and the way I engage with timebanking is really at that level.

My notion is that when neighbors are connected and know what skills they have, that’s when they are most able. The definition of resilience is the ability of an organism to adapt or respond to change. When communities know who is in their community, what skills are in their community, what assets they have available, and they can be in communication with each other around their needs then they are more resilient when changes come. I’m four blocks away from a grocery store that was shut down after the uprisings, after the murder of George Flyod. When the grocery store shuts down that’s a dramatic change for the community so how do we respond to that? Do we have the adaptive capacity, do we know what our resources are? If I’m someone who doesn’t know what the food sources are beyond that grocery store, do I know someone on my block that has the capacity to connect me to those resources? The community resilience aspect is just that knowledge.

Autumn Brown and Adrienne Maree have a podcast How to Survive the End of the World.  They did an episode once about the apocalypse and Autumn made a statement that when a crisis happens it's not about guns, butter, blue jeans, or about the things we think we need stored away to survive the crises. It's about do you know who your neighbors are, do you know what they have, their skills, their strengths, and their needs because there could be a crisis right next door to you and if you don't know how to respond to that need someone could be injured or die. All of these things are about making the web stronger. To our earlier discussion about nature, in my backyard there’s that mycelium network that's beneath the earth that connects plants and transmits resources, when there’s a change that happens in the dirt those roots know how to reroute. They have some sort of communication mechanism so they know how to reroute around that crisis. Certain plants won’t respond and some will, at all times nature is tenacious and something is going to grow where that crisis occurred. That's what I think about when I think of community resilience, having the capacity to adapt to whatever crises, whatever change comes. The Timebank is really about us getting to know those assets that we have around us to respond.

Have you had issues with members joining and not offering time, how are they held accountable?

Yes, the Timebank is an entirely voluntary infrastructure, there are some notes in there around membership fees or contributions that help to keep the infrastructure alive. However, if a member joins and they don’t offer time, there’s no loss, I am not necessarily losing but they are not necessarily gaining, there’s not really anything that happens there. After time I might just disabled a membership that has been inactive for an extended period of time but ultimately the goal is for them to engage in the infrastructure, learn what’s there in the infrastructure, and then over time you nudge people to get them more deeply engaged.

I also recognize that this infrastructure is so new for some neighborhoods and so new for some communities that maybe they just don’t know anyone enough to begin to engage. That’s why it's really important for me to recruit bodies of members, recruit from organizations that have maybe some cohesive networks already established and timebanking is just something that we can lay over those existing networks and relationships to get them to interlink more deeply. I understand if people jump in and think this is so overwhelming I don’t know what to do here. The objective is getting them acquainted with it, having a robust  conversation, and getting them oriented. If they have that acquaintance it's okay if they fall off in terms of participation because they will hear about us again I am sure.

What is the greatest challenge in nurturing a timebank?

Sustaining momentum, it really is a challenge to sustain the ongoing momentum. I'm in my fourth year of continuing to try to build momentum for the timebank here and sometimes it waxes and wanes. We had a really promising partnership with Hive Chicago and after that partnership ended the members that joined kind of stopped engaging. There are some other partnerships like with North Park Nature Center who took on the role of developing their own timebank hub. Which means people went to their center, got oriented around what timebanking is, and they applied for membership. The director of the center would then email me, let me know they did an orientation for this person, and ask if I can activate their membership. Sometimes there are promising starts like that but just sustaining the ongoing momentum is the greatest challenge.

Cowry Collective doesn't exist anymore, they finally sunsetted, the thing that was challenging was that Chinyere who launched the collective ran out of personal steam and capacity to hold this effort up that she had been running for about 10 years. That’s a really honest human assessment that it takes a lot of human energy to lift up a timebank while trying to build institutional capacity and create an institution for this. There’s a great chance that it won’t happen but hopefully you can make some connections to people that will continue to last which is true of St. Louis. The people that were connected through the Timebank are still connected, they still have relationships, they still exchange with each other and they had the opportunity to embody this experience of a different economy and that lives with them.

What is the greatest benefit in nurturing a timebank?

The embodied experience. Within the Kola Nut collaborative, Black Oaks Center, and the healthy food hub, I have lived the experience of a different economy, a different way of life, a different vision of the world and that never leaves me on any day.

The Kola Nut Collaborative was again inspired by the Cowry Collective, the kola nut and the cowry are ancient forms of currency. The cowry was used amongst lands in Asia and the Pacific Islands, the kola nut was used in West Africa. Specifically among Ibo culture it's a symbol of hospitality, beneficial exchange, and trading relationships. I have lived with the kola nut as a project for so long that I really embody the notion, spirit, and ethos of the kola nut. I am looking for ways to connect with people more deeply, be more hospitable, and to expand my participation in a different economy. 

Cowry Collective logo before it dissolved

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a Timebank in their own community?

My advice now is different from my advice then. The first thing is to find a group and run an offers and needs market. If you don’t know what an offers and needs market is, I can point you in the direction and talk to you about it. The Post Growth Institute also has some resources on it. Once you start an offers and needs market with a group of friends or neighbors in your community, then you can figure out what’s available within the network and timebank is a place to put it. It’s an infrastructure where you can put these things and it's also a digital ledger where you can log the exchanges you have with each other. The first step is really to get people to feel that experience, that delight in the exchange, sharing what they have to offer and need.

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