This is the first part in a series on timebanking and social justice. Timebankers have a way of taking care of each other in a neighborly fashion that transcends the usual assistance from state agencies and activist groups, or even traditional families, in some cases. Hidden in the daily exchanges of many timebanks are the nuggets of justice, members who witness injustice and who often decide to rescue others as best they know how. In some ways, this might help explain why people run into burning buildings to save strangers—and perhaps shed light on why so many stand by and do nothing.
Our story begins with the timebank orientation of Anne (not her real name), who was referred to our timebank by the social worker at her primary care doctor’s office. Anne asked for a ride to orientation, so I picked her up at her apartment. She was a tiny person with blazing blue eyes— eyes I could sense held a story. Buzzing around in a power wheelchair, grabbing last minute things excitedly, she opted for her walker to come with me in my Ford Focus. I remember her remarking to me later about that day,
“You were different. You didn’t act like I was going to break like a doll and try to take over going up the front porch steps. You listened to me, listened when I asked for help, and did what I told you to do. No one ever does that for me, they never listen. That’s when I started to relax.”
The road to social justice begins with basic Respect. Everyone deserves a listen.
Anne was the only new member at orientation to have read our handbook and agreements beforehand–what I had asked everyone to do. She understood the core values and had done her homework, and was eager to earn credits. I began to fall in love. We discovered that she had computer skills to offer, and did not mind chatting on the phone to get hours from our offline members and record them. One of those offline members, “Dot,” wanted someone to play cribbage with, so that was Anne’s first exchange. She loved it, and they became fast friends.
My first sense that Anne held a story in her eyes began to play out in the next three months. She was barely hanging on at home, under a lot of stress. Her apartment was barely in compliance as “handicap accessible.” One day, an automatic door shut on her leg when she couldn’t move fast enough, trapping her for 45 minutes. Her stove was too high for her, making it too dangerous to cook. Her apartment was on a high hill, too steep to navigate safely with her power chair. She was essentially trapped, with an abusive boyfriend and his mother pressuring her to come back to him. The Timebank did not have the capacity to help her much at home, at least on a regular basis, and though she tried, she could not get more hours of help at home from state agencies. She eventually went into crisis and called a hotline for help, going overnight to a crisis center. It was after that, when she was assigned a caseworker, that all hell broke loose for her, and timebankers began to rescue her.
The caseworker overwhelmed her in a flurry of directives. She told her she needed to move into a residential care facility immediately and had to get rid of all her belongings. She said the power chair would not be allowed and that Anne should sell it. Anne’s new friend Dot came with her to visit the facility that the caseworker recommended, and witnessed the caseworker and the facility’s administrator talking over Anne’s head, discussing Anne’s “donation” of her dining room table and how nice it would look in the recreation room. When Anne’s abuser came to pick up belongings he had stored in her apartment, Dot was there, along with the caseworker. The caseworker pressured Anne to allow him to hug her goodbye, and watched, smiling, as he then stole a kiss, humiliating her.
This all was not lost on timebankers; three people offered to store her belongings rather than have her sell them, and what she did not want, she donated to the timebank. It was a beautiful warm day in June with a wonderful crew, and we did our best to cheer her up. We stored her power chair in Dot’s shed, and our mechanic removed the battery for safekeeping in the house. When the caseworker arrived to “dispose” of her belongings, they were all gone, including the coveted dining table. The caseworker was furious, driving her to the facility in silence and dumping her there after only ten minutes speaking to the administrator. She closed Anne’s case shortly thereafter and we never saw her again.
Now Anne was again trapped on a long, winding rural road, a considerable distance from us all, and it was hard to get out to visit, especially for her friend Dot, who was not well. Anne had no Internet access and her cell phone, a government giveaway, had limited minutes. She was isolated and fell into despair, and the administrator, “Mary,” was formidable, offering no soothing words.
In August, several of us visited Anne at the facility’s annual barbeque. The burgers tasted like cat food, but the band was good. Anne was thrilled to see us all again, and did not want us to leave. Our IT director, Randy, was with us, and he offered to speak to the administrator about Internet access for Anne. We let it be known that our organization cared very much for Anne and we were keen on keeping her involved. We developed a plan for Internet access in the office, where Anne could work on the computer “with supervision.” We both noticed how Mary referred to Anne as if she were somehow incapacitated, developmentally delayed, or a child, and I was irritated but did not confront Mary about it.
That night Anne left a message for me in hysterics. She had fallen and had asked to go to the hospital, but they would not call an ambulance. I called her back, Randy at my side. At first the staff said she could not talk, she was having a “panic attack.” They must have decided it would be best to give her the phone, because she called me back a few minutes later. I instructed her to ask the staff again to go the hospital, with me on the line listening. The staff changed their mind and called an ambulance. Randy and I met her at the emergency room and, after hearing her story, we asked to speak to a social worker at the hospital. She related to the social worker how the staff at the facility had isolated her after the fall, restrained her by taking her walker and cell phone away, and refused to call an ambulance until we intervened. The hospital called Adult Protective Services and made a complaint—and that is how we became enemies of the residential care facility. The next day, our plans for Internet access for Anne were scrapped by the administrator.
She came back from the hospital with her arm in a sling. Unable to use her walker or manual chair, the staff refused to transport her to the dining room for meals, and also refused to allow her to eat in her room. I was dumbfounded. I did some research and discovered that there was no legal reason for the facility to prevent her from using her power chair (the one the caseworker said was “not allowed”).
I called up our mechanic, and he and I dug out her power chair from Dot’s shed, replaced the battery, and loaded it in my hatchback for transport. He followed me down that long road and helped me unload it, then watched in amusement as I climbed in and rode the chair into the building, past the administrator’s office, and straight to Anne, who looked up in shock.
I was never one for confrontation, and my heart was racing. But somehow, seeing injustice around someone I love, I found strength, even exhilaration, in this moment. The look on Anne’s face was all the reward I needed. She never hugged me so hard—and she hugged the mechanic too.
The administrator lurked sheepishly in the nearby hall, her hands behind her and pressed against the wall. As we went by on the way to Anne’s room, she said, “I never knew she had a power chair.”
That’s how timebankers get things done.
The next week, Anne tore her slipper on a screw sticking up out of the wooden ramp at the facility. I asked her why she wasn’t wearing shoes. She told me her shoes were fitted with braces she could no longer tolerate. Without the braces, the shoes were two sizes too big, and that was part of why she fell. However, the facility had not procured new shoes for her after three months, and the slippers were all she had. The staff complained about the ramp as well, saying it had been that way for months and the maintenance man had not fixed it.
The next day I brought my camera. I opened the door to the facility so the staff could see me well (it was a long but straight hallway, well within their sight) and I took out my camera and videotaped the ramp, zooming in on the protruding screw and providing a narrative to the problem on tape.
I did nothing with this video, but two days later, the ramp was fixed. A week later, an outside provider fitted Anne with new shoes.
Git ‘er done, the timebanking way.
Now, two years later, there is much more to Anne’s story of social justice. We’ll save it for next time, as we continue in this series. If you have similar stories of poetic timebanking justice, please share in the comments below—and please do not use real names.
The actions of neighbors on behalf of neighbors are nothing short of heroic. When a man rescues a stranger from a burning car on the highway it makes the news, many reporters remarking in wonder how uncommon such a thing is, how extraordinary the rescuer is. Is it really? Are we that cynical? Are we helpless staff, jaded administrators, or witnesses? There is a hero in all of us. How many other moments are not on the news, moments of rescue between citizens that happen everywhere, every day? There is something powerful in recording those moments, of telling the stories with a currency like no other. Yes, in counting and recording these exchanges—it makes love ripple, encouraging the hero in us.
We must keep telling these stories, keep counting and announcing our love for one another, because we offer something organic, powerful and transformational, something that will make the world a better place. Share your everyday story with us. Help us change the world.
Stacey Jacobsohn is the Founder and Director of Time Initiative of Maine (T.I.ME)