Gaining Currency: From Germantown to Lancaster, people discover the incredible value of Equal Dollars

story by Brian Ademaekers | photo by Albert Yee. Bob Fishman (center), founder, and Deneene Brockington (Right), director, oversee a purchase at the Equal Dollars Consignment Shop.It’s a Monday afternoon in mid-February and a half-dozen Strawberry Mansion residents gather in a building at 30th and Ridge Streets. They stand around tables loaded with vibrant, fresh vegetables, like lettuce, mushrooms and bean sprouts. One resident, Beth Lisby, talks excitedly about her dinner plans: chicken salad over a bed of fresh green lettuce with plump tomatoes and yellow onion.

It’s a simple meal, but it’s one made with high-quality, fresh vegetables in a neighborhood where fresh vegetables can be a challenge to find. Adding to the satisfaction of the meal is how Lisby earns her bounty. During the week, she spends her time caring for elderly neighbors, making sure they are warm, well-fed and have their prescriptions filled. “I’ll even do the ladies’ hair, if they want that,” she says with a grin.

Part of her earnings goes toward the box of fresh produce she takes home each week. But Lisby doesn’t pay for her dinner with a few George Washingtons. Her bills feature the face of Philadelphia’s Alain Leroy Locke, the first black Rhodes Scholar. This money — known as Equal Dollars — is a local currency used by a growing group of more than 2,000 Philadelphians.

Creating Value

The Equal Dollars story begins in 1996, when Bob Fishman — founder and CEO of the $230 million-per-year nonprofit Resources for Human Development (RHD) — encountered the idea for an alternative to the U.S. dollar. At the time, interest in community currency was heightening, in part fueled by an experiment in Ithaca, N.Y. known as “Ithaca Hours.” The man behind that effort, Paul Glover, remembers getting a call from Fishman, who wanted to know more about how Ithaca Hours (already in circulation for five years) were benefiting the upstate community of artists, students and farmers.

“At the time, a lot of people were sitting around their kitchen tables and getting excited about the idea of starting their own currency,” remembers Glover, author of the local currency how-to book Hometown Money, and now a Philadelphian himself. But, unlike many of those people in the 1990s, Fishman followed through on the idea, and Equal Dollars was born.

Fishman says the concept for Equal Dollars sprang from the same passion that led him to start RHD back in 1970. As one of the bigger nonprofits in the region, RHD serves communities in 14 states with programs targeting issues such as addiction, homelessness and neighborhood development. At age 77, Fishman, a Bala Cynwyd resident with an impressively quick mind and boundless enthusiasm for new ideas, seems more inclined to add to that work than scale back.   

“I’ve always been extremely bothered, from my childhood in Brooklyn on down, at the separation between the haves and the have-nots,” says Fishman, who studied social work at Columbia University. “I started to get very interested in why the system is working so that many people are left without employment — or without adequate employment — or housing or healthcare or a decent education.”

Fishman stumbled upon a foe he found to be especially insidious: the American dollar. At the heart of Fishman’s critique of the dollar is that it’s an interest-bearing currency. These currencies, he argues, put pressure on people and institutions to make a profit at every turn — if you’re going to pay back the interest owed on your money, you have to make a profit. In this system, the only investments that have value are the ones that can turn a profit. And that, says Fishman, explains why a vast range of services and goods with real human value are neglected or wasted.

With Equal Dollars, Fishman set out to create a currency that gives value to the kinds of things our economic system overlooks. RHD, with its considerable financial clout and extensive network of services, acts as a Federal Reserve and Treasury for the currency by printing the bills and issuing them to employees and members who sign up for the program. To start, members pay a $10 fee and get =$50 (Equal Dollars) in return.

Finding Life in the Philadelphia Community

For 12 years, Equal Dollars worked within a fairly narrow network of businesses that allowed members to purchase items like jewelry or clothing accessories. Yet it was lacking two crucial elements that Glover says a community currency needs to thrive: true value that U.S. dollars don’t acknowledge and a constant ambassador to educate people about that value.

Enter Deneene Brockington.

Brockington was hired in 2008 as the new director of the Equal Dollars program. Although she arrived with 20 years of experience in nonprofits, there wasn’t much in her background that prepared her to tackle the issue of Equal Dollars’ lackluster life in the community. But Fishman says she jumped into the challenge with a creative gusto that impressed him.

“When I started five years ago, things were kind of defunct. Nothing was really happening,” says Brockington. “The first thing we needed to do was make it real for people, to make it possible for them to get some basic everyday things.”

Brockington discovered the value she was looking for almost by accident during a visit to the local distribution center of U.S. Foods, a massive foodservices company with which RHD has extensive contracts. “Someone in their produce department said ‘Hey, do you need bananas?’ and we said ‘Sure, we’ll take bananas,’” recalls Brockington. “They said they throw away bananas every week, so we sent a truck — a rented U-Haul truck at the time — and not only did they give us bananas, but they gave us six skids of produce” that were headed for a landfill.

If there’s a defining moment in the Equal Dollars story, this is it. From those bananas and six skids of produce the food market was born, and the currency finally had the value it desperately needed.

The produce U.S. Foods gives to Equal Dollars doesn’t have a value in traditional dollars. In fact, the company was paying to throw out food — items that were close to a sell-by date, for example — because it was cheaper than paying for storage. “They could donate to us the food at their shipping dock that they could no longer sell or even give away because the volume at times requires them to bury it in landfills, creating a [greater] landfill problem,” says Fishman. “And we thought, ‘Wait a minute, we have people wanting the benefit of exchanging with each other, and we have the currency.’”

The main Equal Dollars food market operates from the RHD headquarters in Germantown. Every Monday, a group of some 30 volunteers gathers around 11 a.m. to unload and repackage the food from U.S. Foods and other companies that work with RHD. Everyone working at the market is paid in Equal Dollars; =$25 for one to four hours of work, and =$50 for four to eight hours. By the time the market officially opens at 1 p.m., Brockington says there’s always a lengthy line of people waiting to spend their Equal Dollars. [→]

Growing Membership, Amish Farmers and Equal Dollars at City Hall

The line is symbolic of recent growth in the Equal Dollars community, a spike in interest that Fishman and Brockington attribute to the food market’s success. “A year-and-a-half ago, a shift just happened, and I think it’s just word-of-mouth,” says Brockington. “Word has spread to the point where we’re getting the same people coming back, and we get new people every week. We’re probably averaging 20 new members every week.”

In 2012, the amount of Equal Dollars in circulation rose 50 percent from =$200,000 to =$300,000. Working at the market is just one way people earn Equal Dollars. In 2010, the roughly 300 employees at RHD received a =$50 bonus. (Fishman takes about =$1,000 in his salary.) RHD has a pharmacy where employees can use up to =$5 toward co-pays, and the campus is also home to the Treasure Chest, a consignment shop where clothes and other items are traded and resold for Equal Dollars. With a fully implemented Internet banking system, members can shop on Equal Dollars’ online marketplace where they can buy everything from refurbished bikes to cooking lessons.

Outside of RHD, Brockington has arranged for organizations to reward volunteer work with Equal Dollars — like the work Lisby does for her neighbors in Strawberry Mansion. In that neighborhood, the community group Project Strawberry Mansion acts as a broker for Equal Dollars.

Equal Dollars members Manzie Daniels (left), Gwen Thomas (center), and Kaliema Ali (right) volunteer at the weekly food market in Germantown.“It’s a community that tends to consider itself off the grid anyway, so they were really attracted to this whole concept,” says Brockington. “We have about 40 people in that community who are doing things for each other — they’re running errands for elderly people, they’re tutoring at after school programs, they’re helping to run the food distribution center.”

Other communities have taken Strawberry Mansion’s lead. Similar food markets have recently opened in Feltonville and Port Richmond as well. Equal Dollars made an even bolder investment in food last summer when they converted a 14,000-square-foot vacant lot in North Philadelphia into an urban farm with 40 raised beds; volunteers at the Equal Dollars Urban Farm are paid in the currency.

And, as a sign of the growing reach of Equal Dollars, several Lancaster County Amish families are now accepting them as partial payments for certain foods sold at the main Equal Dollars market during the summer. Produce has included potatoes, peppers, onions and green beans.

For Fishman, seeing this recent explosion in Equal Dollar use is vindication. Equal Dollars, he says, really are adding value to labor, goods and people in Philadelphia neighborhoods that profit-driven federal dollars have long neglected. He hopes that the next step for the project will be to work with City Hall, allowing residents to pay for services or even taxes with Equal Dollars that the city could then use to compensate RHD for contracts already in place.

Given the typically creativity-adverse nature of bureaucratic city government, this seems a long shot. But Equal Dollars was always a bit of an impossible dream, and that certainly didn’t stop Fishman before. That wild aspect of it — the sheer chutzpah of running a currency parallel to the all-powerful American dollar — has made the Equal Dollars experiment particularly rewarding for Fishman and his team.

“I often say to people that it is the most radical thing I have ever been able to do,” he confides with a burst of laughter. “I never thought I would get into having a bank of our own that prints its own money and distributes it without a banking mentality. To be able to cross a boundary into this area of experimenting with a currency that has these different qualities … it’s just mind-blowing.”

Learn more about Equal Dollars at equaldollars.org

Who’s On the Equal Dollar?

=$5, =$10, =$20 bills feature Alain LeRoy Locke (1885-1954), a Philadelphia native known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance and the first black Rhodes Scholar.

=$1 bills  feature Maggie Kuhn (1905-1995). Kuhn, also a Philadelphian, was an early anti-ageism activist who, in 1970, after being forced to retire, founded the Gray Panthers.

Along with portraits of Locke and Kuhn, the bills carry the Equal Dollars creed: “LOCAL People, LOCAL Businesses, LOCAL Resources and LOCAL Opportunities!”