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City People: Women's Wealth

Diana McCourt and Jane Wilson tell the story of Womanshare, which they founded in 1991 in a city known for its isolation. Members of this women's skills exchange build community, share their time and talents, and create new wealth
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City people, women especially, yearn for extended families and community ties. The two of us found that in the process of working for each other, trading our time hour for hour, we were recreating a kind of women's community that had been lost in recent years. In 1991 we formed a skills exchange bank called Womanshare, which has become a vibrant community of 100 women planted in the hard urban soil of New York City. We met at a time when we were both looking for new ways of being in the world. We had both accomplished 20-year careers: Diana as a contractor and woodworker in the building trades, and Jane as a corporate caterer. Both of us were passionately involved in empowering women to develop their skills and careers. With our businesses behind us, we were looking for simpler ways of living and new opportunities for community. Our ideas began to crystallize after a trip together to the south of France for an international retreat with the well-known Vietnamese writer and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. He urged everyone to return home and seek to effect change by working together, supporting each other, and actively engaging in the social and political life of our times.

JANE: On our return we found ourselves as a community of two, sharing yoga, apples, and cats every Tuesday morning, telling each other our dreams, and doing research on how we could be more directly involved in our communities. At the same time, the two of us were exchanging our own skills of cooking and carpentry. Through our understanding of the history of women's work and our research into such new models as Time Dollars and local currencies, we came to realize these two powerful forces could be forged into a women's skills exchange bank. Years ago, I had started a small catering business in my 7-by-10 foot kitchen with a freezer in the bedroom. At the time, I didn't dream it would grow to serve a quarter million people with parties for up to 5,000. In addition to running my own business, I led workshops and conferences for women business owners. Women have created the most enduring small businesses because we build brick by brick and use cooperation instead of power plays. These same skills are ones we used to develop Womanshare.

DIANA: My life was deeply affected by the birth of my daughter who is autistic and severely retarded. I was alone with her for many years and very isolated, and finally had to put her in an institution. I found 5,000 people living in that place in subhuman conditions. Filled with outrage, I became a parent organizer. Eventually the parents' work led to a federal class action case, which closed the institution and mandated a system of community-based services. I came away from this experience knowing that having a vision of how things can be different is a powerful tool for change.

JANE: After six months of research, we had shaped our ideas about Womanshare to the point where we began asking the opinions of friends and groups we knew. We quickly found that women of all ages with all kinds of professional and life experiences responded to the idea of an economic democracy that could expand the social and economic parameters of their lives. The first step was to help each member identify her skills. We did this by inviting women to share an evening in which we interviewed each other to develop a skills list that could be distributed to every other member. At first many women would say, "Well, I don't have any skills that I can think of." But we'd press them a bit, asking not only about their money-earning skills, but about life skills and interests. We found that every woman has a minimum of 20 kinds of skills; for example, helping to organize papers, accompanying a member to a doctor's appointment, driving a stick shift.

DIANA: In Womanshare our energy is transformed into value no matter what the skill: one credit for every hour of work. The nurturing work that women spend much of their lives doing is undervalued in the market economy. An hour of legal advice is valued 20 times more than taking care of a child or an older person. In Womanshare all work is valued equally.

JANE: Womanshare from the beginning grew through the empowerment of its members. One committee shaped and defined our principles, while others worked on credit guidelines, budget, operating structure and decision-making processes. Our monthly potlucks provided continuity, comradery, and opportunities to find new ways to enrich each other and use credits differently. What has evolved are three forms of sharing, in addition to the one-on-one skill sharing: First, members began putting on workshops for other members. For example, a lawyer offered a workshop on living wills. Second came "barnraisings," which often involve the use of skills learned during a workshop. For example, Diana taught a carpentry workshop, and some of her students now do carpentry work for other members. So far they've done sheet rocking, built a bench in a member's daycare center, and made cabinets. And finally, we have affinity groups, which are outside the credit system, but still a vital part of our community. At our potlucks, members invite other members to join them in small groups around such shared interests as caring for older parents, being childless, or learning how to market ourselves. A creative expression group has met regularly for four years to share art, dance, and poetry. As members come to know each other, we also see the growth of informal interaction. A few women will get together for a vegetarian dinner or take a walk around the reservoir.

DIANA: Womanshare is a fluid, growing entity. We are always alert for new opportunities, not only to build community but also to empower our members financially. We are planning an incubator for new business ventures and a revolving loan fund. One of our new members, a cook, wanted to attend an Ayurvedic cooking course, but lacked funds to go. We started a "Support Linda" effort, investing $50 each so she could attend the course, with the understanding that she would teach us what she had learned. We were able to sponsor our own learning while investing in her. We have chosen to keep Womanshare small and to encourage those who have contacted us from all around to build community where they are. We suggest starting exchanges within groups that already exist, such as churches, synagogues, women's clubs, and professional associations.

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