MOUNT RAINIER – A grassroots organization is circulating an alternative currency in an effort to foster community ties and help protect the environment.
The currency, known as the Anacostia Hours, has been in use in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., since late last year and is now accepted by dozens of businesses in the Mount Rainier, Brentwood and Hyattsville areas in exchange for goods and services.
The idea came from Sayuri Miyazaki, an artist and active member of the Mount Rainier community, after she learned about another alternative currency in Ithaca, N.Y.
“I just dreamed it, and then I began organizing,” Miyazaki said.
Miyazaki, who has lived in Mount Rainier for a decade and is about to move to Japan, said she thought that her adopted community would be a good place for an alternative currency since many of its residents share her concern for diversity, protecting the environment, social justice and peace.
“We feel that when we have a local economy, there is more trust,” said Mary Parker, Anacostia Hours’ treasurer.
Miyazaki, Parker and two others began meeting on the idea about a year ago and were the first board members of the Anacostia Hours organization.
The organization now has 72 members. A business that paid $5 at sign-up got two hours in currency. Individual supporters got two hours for $10.
The one-hour, half-hour and quarter-hour bills can be exchanged for goods and services from businesses and individuals listed in a directory that is being updated for the Internet.
People can also get hours by referring new members.
Parker estimates that there are about 170 hours in circulation.
The Glut Food Co-op, founded in 1969 on Mount Rainier’s central 34th Street, is one of the businesses that accepts Anacostia Hours bills.
The co-op is run by a collective. The dozen or so members of the collective agreed by consensus to begin accepting the bills in exchange for groceries.
“It was a really great community initiative,” said collective member Jamie Moorby.
Every other day, if not every day, someone makes a transaction at the co-op using Anacostia Hours, Moorby said.
Parker, the Hours treasurer, said alternative currencies work best in areas where people have problems getting jobs, work for low wages, or in places, like Mount Rainier, where people live simply, in modest houses.
Anacostia Hours are meant to supplement income, not replace it altogether.
“We don’t expect people to get off the dollar,” Parker said.
Each hour is worth the equivalent of $10. It is meant to reflect the value of an hour of work. The choice of the $10 exchange rate was a statement for better wages, Parker said.
“People should be paid a living wage for each hour that they work,” she said.
Businesses that have accepted the local money also give it out in change to customers who request it. The idea is not to accumulate wealth, but to keep the currency circulating in the community.
Dyrell Madison, owner of Artmosphere Digital Cafe on Rhode Island Avenue, began accepting Anacostia Hours about three months ago, a few months after he opened his cafe. He said once a day someone comes into his cafe and pays with the currency.
He said the hours are valuable because they cement links within the community. They encourage him to visit other businesses in the neighborhood, he said, where he can exchange the bills for goods and services.
That feeling of connectivity is shared by Hodari Abdul-Ali, owner of the Dar Es Salaam bookstore on 34th Street. His business serves as the Anacostia Hours’ bank, breaking bills for other members of the network.
Abdul-Ali said that businesses could help their bottom line not only by accepting the new bills, but also by helping to circulate them.
“If they did that, they would ultimately bring more business,” he said.
He said he expects the network to grow. “It’s a good idea. It’s just in the baby stages right now.”
Anacostia Hours’ organizers drew inspiration from a similar network called Ithaca Hours launched in Ithaca, N.Y., about 15 years ago. Stephen Burke, president of the board of Ithaca Hours, said there are about 500 businesses in that network, and the equivalent of about $130,000 in circulation.
There is no guarantee of success. Another organization in Gainesville, Fla., also modeled after the Ithaca Hours, operated for a time and folded a few years ago, said Woody Blue, a former member of that organization’s board.
Parker, the treasurer, a former English-as-a-second-language teacher who moved from California to Mount Rainier about five years ago, said there is an environmental benefit to using a local currency. By keeping the economy localized, she said, people avoid the need to travel large distances in cars to buy essential goods, thereby decreasing pollution and the further depletion of nonrenewable resources.
“It’s not just a financial organization. It’s an environmental organization,” she said.
She said she would like to add local farmers and Hispanic-owned businesses to the list of Anacostia Hours’ members.
Francisca Rodriguez, owner of Francis Restaurant and Carry-Out, a Salvadorian restaurant across the street from the Glut Food Co-op, said she does not accept Anacostia Hours, but added they sound like a good idea to her.
Most of the businesses that have signed up so far — which include a used bookshop, a general contractor and a debt reduction service, among others — are local and small.
“Target would never be interested in us,” Parker speculated, referring to the national retail chain. “And that’s not something we really think about. We want to keep the money circulating locally.”