One group pushes for a local currency plan
Imagine opening your wallet, shuffling past your Washingtons and Lincolns, and pulling out a crisp Santa Cruz dollar. The idea for a local currency is gaining momentum, and, although alternative currencies are increasing in popularity throughout the country, a Santa Cruz version promises to be unique.
An enthusiastic crew of health care providers, wellness educators, and local food activists are drawing up plans for a mutual discount network that is tentatively being called the Santa Cruz Wellness Exchange Cooperative. The group wants to infuse the county economy with an alternative currency (a “Santa Cruz Wellness Buck,” perhaps), designed to bolster business for local health care providers and food producers. The currency network would incorporate the mission of New Earth Exchange, a membership network for local businesses committed to environmental sustainability and mutual-aid, but would have an expanded focus and a greater reach.
“This is bottom-up, grassroots economics,” says Langdon Roberts, sitting in a circle of people in his small Soquel office. Wedged between a certified hypnotherapist and a self-employed ecological landscaper, Roberts outlines the details of the currency network to the eager gathering of alternative healers, organic food producers, and local business owners.
Roberts’ knack for integration and innovative makes him a well-suited spokesperson for this complex and constantly evolving project. As the Director of the Center for Transformational Neurophysiology, he fuses traditional healing methods such as massage and meditation with cutting-edge biofeedback technologies. The resulting therapies are designed to help people manage anxiety and pain, overcome addictions, and cope with conditions like Tourette’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder.
“It turns out a lot of people are thinking the same thing: a local currency,” he says. “Why hasn’t it happened yet?”
It is legal to print and circulate an alternative currency as long as it looks different than a U.S. dollar and using it is voluntary. Doing so can kick-start a sluggish regional economy by boosting sales of local goods and services. Because it cannot be spent at chain stores or online shops, it stays in the community instead of disappearing to out-of-area banks and corporate coffers. In addition, the nonprofit that manages the currency can issue loans and grants to community groups.
Popular during the Great Depression, local currencies resurfaced in 1991 when Ithaca Hours debuted in Ithaca, New York. Detroit Cheers, the Humbolt Community Currency, and the Piedmont Plenty are other contemporary examples. BerkShares of Great Barrington, Massachusetts trump them all, however. With nearly 2.5 million bills issued since 2006, it is the largest alternative currency network in the United States. The colorful BerkShares are available in five denominations, sport portraits of local figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Herman Melville, and are accepted at more than 350 area businesses.
The currency network proposed for the Santa Cruz Wellness Exchange Cooperative would be unique among these forerunners. “The entry point for currency should be something that is common to everyone, so what could be better than healthcare and food?” asks Roberts.
L. Roxanne Evans is a multifaceted Santa Cruzan whose dedication to community collaboration, education, and networking makes her especially enthusiastic about the local currency plan. A landscape designer, horticultural consultant, and certified permaculturalist, Evans first met Roberts as a patient in his neuromassage practice. The two discovered a common interest when they decided to barter for services instead of exchange cash.
“We discussed how we were interested in creating a model for formalizing this type of exchange between practitioners,” says Evans. An informal barter economy already operates among Santa Cruz health providers and small businesses. The plan now, says Evans, is to codify this system with printed money so more Santa Cruzans can get involved.
Although details are still in the works, Roberts reports that the currency network will likely be a multi-tiered, membership-based system that would revolve around a health and food program comprised of participating health care practitioners and local food growers.
Participants would pay a monthly membership fee in exchange for an allotment of local currency. A freshly printed local dollar would have to first be used at a participating health or food provider. These “primary providers” would then stamp the currency, thereby making it eligible for use at non-health- or non-food-related businesses. Providers could choose how much local currency to accept, and members would be eligible for discounted goods and services.
This arrangement would ensure that the currency first enters the local economy through health and food providers that are committed to sustainability, wellness, and community. After that, it could be used to purchase goods and services through other types of participating providers—think electricians, lawyers, furniture makers—remaining local all the while.
“Everyone can become a provider of some sort, not just the businesses with a store front,” says Roberts. “It could also include people like unemployed carpenters or those who grow organic produce in their backyards.”
As for the look and variety of the potential bills, the group is undecided. “It has to be a physical piece of paper that is difficult to counterfeit. There are a limited number of printers who can do it, but it’s possible. Maybe we’d start with one or two denominations and expand as we go,” says Roberts. The group may even host a public contest to find the perfect image for the bills.
Meeting Local Needs
Advocates of the project have identified several under-served populations as potential beneficiaries of the Santa Cruz Wellness Exchange Cooperative. Among them are at-risk children and youth, those with substance abuse issues and dual diagnoses, the elderly, and trauma survivors.
One proponent is Henry Iasiello, who sits on the board of directors of the Vietnam Veterans Association (VVA) California State Council and is the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) committee chair. Although not voicing an official VVA position, he feels strongly that local veterans could benefit from a community-focused health network backed by a local currency.
According to the Veterans Health Council, less than 20 percent of the approximately 24 million living veterans access health care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). “Having to confront the VA is an adversarial experience,” says Iasiello. “You have to argue over what is compensable and sometimes there are fine lines.” Health problems resulting from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, are rarely covered.
“The bottom-line for vets are the concepts of readjustment and social trust, and that means reconnecting with the local community,” says Iasiello, a Vietnam veteran himself. “The idea of having this wellness exchange, of keeping it local, would be really very helpful to the veterans and their families.”
So, when will a Santa Cruz dollar be as good as gold at your neighborhood produce stand or acupuncturist’s office? Perhaps ironically, a lack of regular old greenbacks is the main challenge facing the currency network. Although Santa Cruz County Mental Health Services is currently reviewing their ambitious funding proposal, Roberts says the group is prepared to seek funding elsewhere.
Apart from the initial capital required to set up the system, print the money, and manage a searchable online database of participating providers, the people behind the Santa Cruz Wellness Exchange Cooperative are hoping to raise enough funds to support a paid staff. The success of the BerkShares network notwithstanding, local currencies have been known to fizzle out due to mismanaged growth and overworked volunteers.
“I think it’s a matter of organization, really,” says Roberts. “The willingness and interest is here. We’re going to organize it and make it happen.”
LOCAL MONEY, fewer PROBLEMS? Santa Cruz Wellness Exchange Cooperative organizers (L-R) Daz Haela, Stephanie Winn and Langdon Roberts hope to introduce a local buck to Santa Cruz. Visit newearthexchange.org.
written by Jennifer Alexander, December 10, 2009
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