Project of the Day: Trade School and the emergence of ‘barter-for-education’ communities

Trade School (started in NYC) is an example of the emerging Barter-for-Education Communities. Trade Schools have been popping up around the world and are now active in 15 cities and 10 countries. Trade School is associated with the barter initiative OurGoods.

Here is a video about their expansion. For more details, see the interview excerpts below.

Trade School Everywhere from Alex Mallis on Vimeo.

According to the founders, such schools emphasize:

* Practical Skills (action over abstraction, enthusiasm over experts)

* Reciprocity (everyone has something to share: anyone can teach, everyone can ‘afford’ the barter because it includes labor)

* Rigor + Humility (unempowering and empowering work for all)

* Community Space (share food/tea, make furniture, you know the organizers because we are sitting in class with you)

Here are details from interviews posted on the site itself:

How did it start? Where did you come up with the idea?

It all started because three of the five co-founders of OurGoods (Louise Ma, Rich Watts, Caroline Woolard) were given an opportunity to work with GrandOpening, and we had a wild brainstorm session about many possible barter storefronts. We decided that “barter for instruction” had a lot of potential.

So, from February 25th to March 1st, 2010, we ran Trade School at GrandOpening in the Lower East Side. Over the course of 35 days, more than 800 people participated in 76 single session classes. Classes ran for 1, 2, or 3 hours and ranged from scrabble strategy to composting, from grant writing to ghost hunting. In exchange for instruction, teachers received everything from running shoes to mixed CDs, from letters to a stranger to cheddar cheese. We ran out of time slots for teachers to teach and classes filled up so quickly that we had to turn people away. This made us think, “we should keep doing this!”

Why did you get involved?

Louise Ma: I’m interested in an open forum where theoretical and technical investigations can co-exist, where low-brow and high-concept can cross-pollinate. I’m for an environment where people are brought together by the passionate interests they share with their peers.

Caroline Woolard: I am involved because I want to encourage cooperation and discussion about value. Trade School demonstrates that value is subjective, and that New Yorkers ARE interested in supporting one another. Where else will you find a teacher’s knowledge (the class) right next to the teacher’s wish list (the barter items)? Trade School is a small part of the solidarity economy- economic practices that reinforce values of mutualism, cooperation, social justice, democracy, and ecological sustainability. I hope Trade School allows mutual respect to emerge between people. With mutual respect, anything is possible.”

Co-founder Caroline Woolard was also interviewed by Tal Beery in Shareable:

TB: How does someone start a Trade School?

CW: First, you go on the website and there is a PDF that you have to read about how we organize. We have principles, which you have to accept or alter them in a way that we accept, and then you have a lot of conversations with me! In the future, you will have conversations with organizers from other Trade Schools as well. Trade School London organizers, for example, are starting to help new Trade Schools open. I hope that one organizer from each Trade School joins the “Trade School Everywhere” organizing crew and helps new Trade Schools open.

You could also just go start a Trade School without talking to me. You wouldn’t get our software, which helps you organize, and you won’t be part of the network of Trade Schools. In Cologne and in Charlottesville, Virginia, they started a Trade School after emailing us once and just going for it. They did it way faster than we expected. We have talked with them since and feel that they are doing things that are aligned with our principles, so we link to them from our website. But if you want to start a Trade School and you want advice and you want our software you just talk to me and I have a lot of organizational documents that I share.”

TB: What’s so great about this software?

CW: If you are in a place where a lot of the people will use the internet it is a lot faster to use the software. It coordinates all the emails—reminder emails, sign up emails—and all the administrative stuff I used to do by hand. Or Zubalsky built the software and Rich Watts and Louise Ma did the design. We are going to have a huge upgraded version that will be open source that we are raising money for now.

TB: How do you ensure that Trade Schools abroad are run in the best way possible?

CW: I don’t monitor the other Trade Schools closely. The kind of people who volunteer to spend 10-40 hours a week organizing a space that runs on mutual respect are pretty incredible. I talk to most of the organizers on Skype on a weekly basis so I have a sense of who they are. I have had really good debates with organizers about their vision and what frameworks interest them because I want to make sure we are in the same mindset or at least understand why we aren’t and that the difference isn’t too great. Also having them make videos about why they wanted to start a Trade School gives me a good sense of who they are.

TB: In expanding internationally, are there cultural differences that are hard to overcome?

CW: In Italy, they told us they think it is weird to serve coffee or tea ahead of time before the class. I don’t know why, but they said that was weird. In Cologne, there was a time when they only wanted to just have classes that are totally free. Now I think it’s just some classes. In Guadalajara, they said that if you take a class as a student you have to commit to teaching a class, so that all students will become teachers. Also in Guadalajara, in the beginning, the organizer said that no one uses the internet, so he uses flyers and a lot of analog, face-to-face organizing techniques to get people to know about Trade School. But now he does also post the classes on the internet.”

So what about OurGoods then?

How does OurGoods relate to Trade School? is a barter network for creative people. Three of the five co-founders of OurGoods jumped at an opportunity to barter for storefront space in February 2010, and Trade School began. But Trade School is just one of many possible barter spaces for face to face interaction. What about a barter movie theater, a barter restaurant, or a barter clinic?

Trade School helps OurGoods because, in some ways, is just a directory of creative people who are ready to connect in real space to begin a barter negotiation. In-person meetings are incredibly important. For example, how do I know whether or not you are actually good at what you say you’re good at? What if I want to trade with you simply because you’re cool? I won’t know how I feel about you until we meet in person. Trade School is a way for members of OurGoods to meet people who are interested in barter. It’s a community of people who are open to alternative exchange where dialog and transaction MAY emerge, but where class instruction remains the focus.

Do you have any advice to people who want to start their own Trade School?

… You should come and visit us in NYC to get a sense of how the space feels, what the classes are like, and how to organize/run events.”