Rethinking Money

banknote change

A Berkeley mom shakes up the notion of business as usual

by Rachel Trachten  •  Photos by Nicki Rosario

Holts is the mastermind behind Cowrie Village, which includes the Rootical Gathering, Gather & Trade, and EBBX, the online East Bay Barter Exchange

Holts is the mastermind behind Cowrie Village, which includes
the Rootical Gathering, Gather & Trade, and EBBX, the online East
Bay Barter Exchange

Step away from the system. Trade.”

This Facebook message, posted by South Berkeley mom YaVette Holts, reveals her mission to rethink the dollar.

Holts heads up three projects that challenge attitudes about money and our reliance on dollars as the best way to get what we need. Her projects fall under the umbrella of Cowrie Village, an organization she created and named after the shiny cowrie shells once used as a currency in Africa and China.

Fair Trades

In early October, I caught up with Holts at the Harvest Exchange, a cash-free barter event behind Oakland’s California Hotel. Under a blazing sun, Holts was busy setting up tables and directing volunteers. She and her team had built a makeshift canopy by attaching colorful fabric to tall bamboo sticks and the rim of a nearby basketball hoop.  For just over a year, Holts had been organizing monthly barter events under the name Gather & Trade. Although the swaps typically include items other than produce, this one was part of the People’s Grocery West Oakland Harvest Festival. People’s Grocery is the fiscal sponsor for Cowrie Village.

At 50, Holts is an optimist with a warm smile. When her car broke down, refusing to go into reverse, she said, “It’s a message from the universe: Go forward!” The single parent of two sons, Holts also finds time to run a vacation rental business and a bodywork practice, often for trade. As an African American woman, she has a particular passion for spreading ideas about barter and alternative economies to urban communities of color.

Urban farmer Wanda Stewart brought fresh eggs, bath salts, and medicated body balms to trade at the cash-free exchange behind the California Hotel.

Urban farmer Wanda Stewart brought fresh eggs, bath salts, and
medicated body balms to trade at the cash-free exchange behind the California Hotel.

Five vendors take part in the Harvest Exchange, including Wanda Stewart of Obsidian Farm. Stewart sits under the homemade canopy, her goods for barter laid out on a table in front of her. Stewart’s Polish chicken, named Aunt Katie, was in a cage nearby. (Aunt Katie was not available for barter; Stewart didn’t want to leave her in the car.) At her South Berkeley urban farm, Stewart keeps 13 chickens: Today, she has brought eggs to trade, along with bath salts, chayote, lemongrass, medicated body balms, and jars of preserved Moroccan lemons.

Stewart strikes up a conversation with Celeste Burrows, who is perusing the items on Stewart’s table. They talk about Stewart’s plan to start an after-school program in her garden. Burrows mentions that she teaches astronomy at the Chabot Space and Science Center and owns a portable telescope. Stewart is thrilled to hear this: She wants to introduce astronomy and other science lessons at her after-school program. A match is made: Burrows takes a dozen eggs and a chayote, promising astronomy lessons and/or some gardening help, too.

“It’s a conversation; it’s a negotiation,” says Stewart. “We have to learn to live in community in different ways.” Stewart adds that she’s seen how effectively barter can work in daily life. For example, Stewart gives Holts homemade oils in exchange for bodywork; she also mentors her hairdresser’s teenage son and gets monthly hair care in return.

Also at the Harvest Festival were Phat Beets Produce, Mandela Marketplace, Chai Mi Amor, and the Freedom Farmers, a group of black farmers committed to bringing fresh produce to West Oakland. The Freedom Farmers brought in four large bags of greens and peppers as well as a list of things they’d like in return for the produce: tasks such as an hour of help building a wooden storage shed, assistance handing out flyers, and the design of a new logo. Customers can take a bag of produce as long as they also fill out a form stating which task they’ll trade for it. Holts will then follow up with an email to remind both parties of the commitment.

Holts’ friend, Noni Session, was a co-organizer of the event. As a graduate student in anthropology, Session is interested in the interpersonal and societal aspects of trade. “When I give you a dollar,” she says, “our social contract is complete. I don’t need to know anything else about you; I don’t have to care about your son or if I’m over or underpaying you.” A trade is more complex than a cash transaction, and runs the risk of not satisfying both parties. Yet, it offers the powerful reward of social connection.

Rooted in friendship: Rootical Gathering members (left to right): YaVette Holts, Kweli Session, LeRhonda Birden, Karen Gordon-Brown, Noni Session. Two members were out of town. The wooden box on the table holds the money collected at each meeting

Rooted in friendship:
Rootical Gathering
members (left to right):
YaVette Holts, Kweli Session, LeRhonda Birden, Karen Gordon-Brown, Noni Session. Two members were out of town. The wooden box on the table holds the money collected at each meeting

Circle Up

At a very different monthly event, Holts leads an intimate circle of seven women committed to changing their own intentions around money. Holts calls it the Rootical Gathering, a sou-sou (or lending circle) with roots in West Africa. On the first Monday of each month, Holts, Session, and five others gather for an evening that begins with a potluck dinner. Each of the seven women contributes $35 and one of them takes home $200. The monthly total is actually $245, with the remaining $45 put aside to support a community project. The cycle of eight meetings ends after each woman has had a turn to receive the funds, with one extra wrap-up session.

I joined the group on a warm September evening at Holts’ Berkeley home. Although some members didn’t know one another when the sou-sou began, they seemed like old friends, sharing laughter, red wine, and a veggie stir-fry. “Every single meeting, we all put our hands together and take a picture to reinforce our togetherness and our commitment to one another,” says Karen Gordon-Brown, an instructional designer for BART who also teaches at Merritt College.

After dinner, the women move to the living room, where they light a sage stick, chanting the words “peace and light” as Holts carries the sage toward each of the four cardinal directions. Some of the women choose to be “smudged,” a ritual in which sage is rubbed onto the body. “We use the saging and the voice ritual to remind us that this practice is less about currency and more about understanding value,” says Session. “We place value in people as opposed to in a dollar.”

Along with friendship and camaraderie, the sou-sou offers practical benefits. Rather than each woman struggling on her own to save money, they enjoy the support and structure of the circle as well as the reward of a lump sum. Session used her $200 to pay a school tuition bill; Holts put hers toward piano lessons for one of her sons and a gym membership for the other.

The sou-sou is an international form of micro-lending, known as a tanda in Latin America, lun-hui in China, and paluwagan in the Philippines. The amounts given vary from group to group, but the basic idea of mutual support is the same. Historically, immigrants and other groups not traditionally welcomed by banks or insurance companies have turned to these types of lending circles. In some cases, the groups formalize the process and report the loans and payments to a credit bureau to increase their members’ credit scores.

Holts has improvised on the sou-sou, combining it with a giving circle, in which a group makes philanthropic gifts. In October, when the sou-sou ended, the members had $315 to donate ($45 per meeting x 7), and would then have to decide where to give the money and how to expand the concept of the sou-sou by creating a second circle.

Time is Money

Holts has one more project in the works: a collaboration with the Bay Area Community Exchange (BACE) Timebank. In this system, time is the currency of exchange, meaning that all hours are equal: an hour of graphic design, for example, has the same value as an hour of carpentry. On the BACE Timebank’s website, people ask for or offer services and track their hours. If someone spends an hour giving you a haircut, that person gets an hour’s credit and you owe an hour to the system. You “pay” for your haircut with an hour’s work given to any member of the timebank.

“Most existing timebanking or barter networks use a vocabulary that’s not universally inclusive, or at least doesn’t translate well,” says Holts. To create a network that she says is “present for the unique concerns of brown and black folks living in the inner city,” Holts is collaborating with leaders at BACE and tech wizards at Oakland’s Sudo Room. Together, they’re building the East Bay Barter Exchange, a timebank that will be a sister to BACE.

In all her work, Holts seeks new approaches to daily needs. “It’s important for us as a society to start really thinking about what happens when things break down,” she says, referencing last fall’s government shutdown and furlough. “We, as the everyday working people, have to get from Monday to Friday while all of that other stuff is going on.” Holts points to City CarShare, Airbnb and TaskRabbit as new, nontraditional methods of getting what we need. Her own work adds to the mix of creative options: “I’m not trying to take away or destroy what does exist,” she says, “not overtly, I should say, but to offer alternatives. I’m trusting that people will see the value of that and the liberation it brings and make good use of it.”  •

Cowrie