Neighborhoods reap benefits of grass-roots barter groups

"In a way, barter groups are institutionalizing a sense of neighborhood," says David Tobin, the curly haired, blue-eyed director of a national barter network called The Barter Project.

He explains: "Say you're from the inner city, and you want to put your kid through college. Well, you don't know much about that scene -- where to go, how to get scholarships, what the kid should wear, how much money he needs, any of it -- so you go down to the union, or the local bar, or the church for advice.

"But none of those places work any more -- the church is the only structure that's left," he feels. What's filling the gap, he thinks, are barter groups, which arose as a response to inflation as a place for neighborhood people to exchange their skills for work they needed done. In addition, the groups become "a natural place to go for advice," he says.

Barter groups, Mr. Tobin says, have evolved from being simple evidence of economic hard times to becoming neighborhood hangouts, tapping the pool of wasted talent he claims is "built into our economy -- the elderly, the handicapped, those on welfare."

Mr. Tobin is in a better position than most to observe this. As an active participant in a small group in Oregon (he fixes cars), the young man attended the First National Barter Conference in 1979, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin.

There he discovered that barter groups were springing up all over the country -- "they've gone from a handful five years ago to a truckload today. Nobody had exact figures, but I think they're growing at the rate of 10 or 12 a month."

The small grass-roots organizations that participated in the conference enjoyed their brief exchange and asked that a national network be set up to share good ideas and discuss mutual problems.

That was the thrust behind "The Barter Project, a two-year-old program of the non-profit group, Volunteer: The National Center for Citizen Involvement.

As project head, Mr. Tobin answers up to 20 letters each day, most of which ask for names of local barter groups or details of how to start a group. The project also puts out a quarterly newsletter detailing the work of various groups and describing the efforts the groups have used to solve standard problems -- setting up files, linking participants, reaching certain target groups.

Setting up the files calls for a light touch, Mr. Tobin says, but most groups tend to "overdose on system design." This is because "it's pretty rare that we get a chance to make up a system of credits and debits." So he wrote a manual showing how to set up a functioning system that allows people to veiw the talent available.

Getting the talent used is another problem entirely, says Mr. tobin. "It's hard to break the old Yellow Pages syndrome," he claims, saying that "barter fairs" are one of the best stimulants to trading. There, participants stand up and say, 'I am a housepainter, and I need someone to fix my car,' and an exchange is worked out.

The exchanges may take three or four links (Joe paints Betty's house, Betty fixes Jane's washing machine, Jane sews Harvey's drapes, Harvey fixes Joe's car). Barter groups were originally conceived to facilitate these complex deals.

Each person lists the talents he feels competent offering -- anything from babysitting to electrical work, from research to graphics, from cooking to car repair. Then, as they give their work, they accumulate credits -- typically, one credit for every hour worked. They can reap these credits by having work done for them.

The system has "political implications," Mr. Tobin admits, since the work is not weighted -- every job is equal to every other in value, and is measured only by time. An hour of babysitting equals an hour of plumbing, which equals an hour of research -- an equality unheard of in the money economy.

So the groups tend to attract counterculture members. "It's no problem getting hippies in these groups -- chances are, they're doing it anyway," he says.

But Mr. Tobin thinks the barter idea should work best among the retired -- people of vast experience and extra time, he points out, whose talents are often wasted in our society. Some groups, such as the Work Exchange in Milwaukee, Wis., deliberately target senior citizens for these programs.

Work Exchange started as a senior citizens group and gradually opened up to other ages. Another group in Grants Pass, Ore., linked with seniors by setting up an apparentice and tutor program. Working with the vocational director at the high school, grandmother's clubs, professional associations, and youth groups, director Steve Van Hook set up a diverse program teaching a wide range of skills, including glass cutting, welding, canning, quilting, photography, and carpentry.

Apprentices, in exchange, do yard work, run errands, clean gutters, and "help in tasks [the seniors] were unable or unwilling to perform themselves," says Mr. Van Hook.

Such a "healthy mixture of ages," Mr. Tobin says, "is rare in our society, and dissolves many of the fears and myths the two groups have about each other." The mixture, he says, "works on a one-to-one basis against prejudice."

Prejudice of another sort is being conquered through a Hartford, Conn., group just starting up in an area that is roughly 50 percent elderly white and 50 percent young black in composition. "Racial hostility may be there on a citywide level," he says, "but it's real different on a personal level."

Another attribute Mr. Tobin sees in the barter groups is accountability: "People always ask, what about rip-offs? Nobody in a barter can guarantee their work -- what if someone really messes up you car or your living room?"

"Well, I've found just the opposite -- most people aren't going to offer a service if they don't feel competent giving it, and there's a real sense of accountability and pride of workmanship when you're doing it on this level. In fact, one of the best things about barter is that the discarded peoplle in society -- the so-called unemployable -- find that they have something of real worth to offer."

Such exchanges foster a "real barn-raising mentality," Mr. Tobin says, and have been used by some communities to restore certain neighborhoods. One -- the John Ball Park area of Grand Rapids, Mich. -- used a neighborhood swap and a small community development grant to fix up the neighborhood. As a sidelight, nieghbors started exchanging educational services such as baking, sewing, gardening, and musical talent.

There, the barter group helped to "institutionalize that neighborhood feeling ," as he says. But he hopes that the neighborhoods, in exchange, will "institutionalize bartering. Now, there's a wave of popular support for these groups, because people are hurting and times are tough -- we saw these groups in the '30s.

"But the benefits of having barter groups are far more than economic," he says. And because of the benefits, "I think the barter groups are here to stay." To learn more about barter:

* The Barter Project PO Box 4179 Boulder, Colo. 80306

This group answers basic questions and maintains a list of barter groups around the country. For $2.50, they will send a "starter kit" that includes two issues of their newsletter, a manual on how to set up a barter group, a fact sheet on The Barter Project, and a list of six groups that have composed their own how-to manuals.

* Community Skills exchange 921 N. Rogers Street Olympia, Wash. 98502

For $3 the group will send an information packet incluidng a history of its program, copies of its newsletter and forms, descriptions of office procedures, and problems it has encountered.

* Fletcher, R. Kay, and Stephen B. Fawcett, "The Skills Exchange." This is a step-by-stp manual on starting a neighborhood swap program, available for $6 from the Center for Public Affairs, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kan. 66045.

* "The Barter Book," by Dyanne Asimow Simon (New York: E. P. Dutton, $4.50). David Tobin calls this "the best book available for an introduction to the barter network idea."

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