Trading Therapy for Art To Forge a Community
Four years ago, Diana McCourt and Jane Wilson struck up a conversation at a coffee shop on the Upper West Side. And with one thing leading to another they moved from friendship to social revolution.
"We realized we had a lot of experiences and interests in common," said Ms. McCourt. Both women had been active in school board and health campaigns. Ms. McCourt was phasing out her custom carpentry business and Ms. Wilson had sold her corporate catering company. Ms. Wilson recalled, "I was looking for some new way to be in the world."
As the two met regularly, their conversation often turned on how they might achieve a life of involved sharing, typified by barn raisings and quilting bees, but in an urban setting. They read widely about efforts to establish intimate economies that encouraged friendship, books like "Small is Beautiful" by E. F. Schumacher and articles about Time Dollars by Edgar S. Cahn. They discussed various strategies for developing an economically linked circle of friends extending beyond family. Finally, 18 months ago they were ready.
"We established Womanshare, a cooperative skill bank," said Ms. McCourt. Explaining the concept, she went on: "Any member can call on the skills and talents of any other member. All work is calculated in hours and all work is equal, meaning that an hour of carpentry is worth the same as an hour of cooking lessons, or therapy or massage."
But the system goes beyond simple barter of labor or chores. Women who do the work earn credits for them. They can then use the credits to pay for work drawn from the wider pool of skills and talents in the entire group. Women who have any work done for them are similarly charged with a debit in their account that will be wiped clear when they provide services for another member.
"I keep the books," said Ms. McCourt. "Women call me to tell me how many hours they worked or how many hours of work they had done, and I write it in a big ledger. But we are about to switch to a computer."
At the start, said Ms. Wilson, very few of the members knew very many of the others. They heard about the group from friends or friends of friends and they trickled in, filling out forms on which they listed their professional skills and their life skills along with a wish list of the kind of services they thought they could use. These were copied and distributed to all other members so that deals could be struck.
On one not atypical application form one member listed her life skills as "sewing, embroidery, crocheting, knitting, macramé, quilting, decoupage on rocks, candle making, tie-dying, calligraphy – italic and English round hand – ballroom dancing, cooking, kitchen renovation adviser." Included in her wish list were "Help in decorating and decision making especially with rug size and club chairs and color; electrical work, installation of tile bathroom, more efficient space utilization of closet, exchange or trade clothing, jewelry or household items, makeup consultation, acupuncture, someone to come to my home and do fitness training with me."
As the group quickly reached its full envisioned strength of 70, it attracted women ranging in age from 22 to 72. Most lived on the Upper West Side, but some were from downtown and Brooklyn. There were teachers, writers, contractors, doctors, cooks, buyers, singers, lawyers, therapists, at least one formerly homeless person, painters and a judge. "Between us we have more than 200 different skills and our members can teach 60 subjects," said Ms. Wilson.
"From the start we set up one basic rule insisting that all members always respect the work," said Ms. McCourt. "What that means is that if someone is having a massage, then that massage should take an hour and it should take place before coffee, tea or socializing. We believe that all too often women's work has been treated with contempt or undervalued and we didn't want to fall into that trap."
But after work, there has been plenty of time for the kind of friendship and community building that Womanshare's founders had in mind in the first place. There have been workshops on starting businesses, on ecological issues and health. Members have planted one another's gardens, cooked for the weddings of one another's daughters, seen one another through illnesses and grief, vacationed together, counseled one another on changing careers or wardrobes. "Five of us, aged 50 to 72, are going to Ireland together this summer," said Ms. Wilson.
Though Womanshare has stopped accepting new members for fear that greater growth could endanger its spirit, its founders enthusiastically urge other groups, not limited to women, to try similar experiments in community building. They claim that it is not a very hard thing for neighbors to do, no harder than barn raising.
Article from the column About New York by Michael T. Kaufman, reprinted from the New York Times, May 19, 1993.