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Trade School Toronto Aims To Spur Barter Economy As Youth Seek Alternatives In Post-Recession World

Is A Barter Economy The Way Of The Future?
Monica Kelly

Toronto student Marina Wilson, 13, will trade the secret behind her business of making fashion accessories out of duct tape for craft supplies. In exchange for baked goods, a 29-year-old economist at Deloitte will teach a lesson on basic economic issues.

Those are just some of the barter-for-knowledge exchanges set to take place during the inaugural session of Trade School Toronto, which kicks off on Saturday.

The first of its kind in Canada, the five-day program is an indication of the growing popularity of a post-recession “alternative economy,” particularly among Millennials, according to organizer Michelle van Looy.

“In this generation, there’s that shift, where capitalism has to look different for us,” said van Looy, director of That’s Women’s Work Arts Network, a Toronto-based non-profit that aims to provide local artists with affordable exhibition opportunities.

Millennials or ‘Gen Y’ — the generation loosely defined as those aged 18 to 30 — are grappling with high student loan debt and the residual effects of an economic downturn that left them with poor job prospects.

“People are relying more and more on each other. It’s like, ‘OK, I can’t afford to go out and buy a brand new coat. But I can teach a class and the coat comes.’ So your capitalistic needs are being met by the community,” van Looy said.

Billed as a way to break down financial barriers and celebrate “the social nature of exchange,” Trade School Toronto was inspired by a barter-for-knowledge group in New York City. Similar organizations have since sprouted in 20 countries around the world.

About 160 people have registered for Trade School Toronto sessions, which range from self-hypnosis and bike maintenance to personal finance and beginner needle felting, where participants will create a brooch or ornament using a felting needle and unspun wool.

Scheduled to run through October 3, Trade School Toronto will be held in a variety of spaces around the city. Van Looy said that she and fellow organizers Judy Verseghy, Cassandra Witteman, Nico Koenig, Elizabeth Fraser and Eric Rosenberg, all of whom work in the non-profit sector, secured event space through a combination of “begging, borrowing and offering to barter.”

“It’s such an opportunity for people who can’t afford to go to classes,” said Marina’s mother Monica Kelly, who found out about the event through Facebook.

Kelly, 40, who homeschools her daughter, has signed up to teach lessons in vegan cooking and crocheting. (She has also asked to be compensated in craft supplies.)

Marina said she hopes the Trade School will allow her to grow the business she recently founded, Marina Rocks, where she has been selling wallets and other duct tape accessories in her spare time for the past six months.

“It will be fun and get my name out there. I like to be out with other people, teaching,” said Marina, whose class is dubbed “Make Something Cool out of Duct Tape.”

According to van Looy, Trade School Toronto students and teachers range in age from teenagers to seniors.

But the interest in knowledge-exchanges reflects a resurgence in bartering in recent years, particularly among young adults, who face a labour market that remains as grim as it did in the depths of the recession.

As Bloomberg News recently observed, clothing swap parties and online apparel swaps have become more common among younger U.S. consumers who prefer to trade clothes rather than buy them full-price. Meanwhile, in Halifax, Maclean’s reports that a growing number of out-of-work university grads make ends meet by monetizing their hobbies in an underground economy that includes basement speakeasies and neighbourhood farm stands.

As Shannon Simmons, 27, puts it: “Our baby boomer parents set us up for wanting things we can’t afford. We grew up in these lavish houses. We went to nice schools, and now we hit the real world and we’re like, ‘Crap.’”

Simmons became a minor media celebrity when she quit her job with a top wealth management firm in 2010 to launch The Barter Babes project. Over the course of a year, hundreds of women traded goods and services for financial advice from the Toronto resident, who has since incorporated bartering into her monthly budget — and includes it in the advice she gives to clients.

“Barter has grown in popularity by the demand of this demographic who wants to get what they want,” said Simmons, who is leading Toronto Trade School’s personal finance class in exchange for bike repair, knit hats and scarves and some outdoor patio furniture.

For a generation that thrives on validation and a sense of purposefulness, Trade School Toronto also holds another appeal, especially in the wake of the recession, when “work and money can be … really isolating,” said van Looy.

“You take whatever job you can get and you’re happy for it even if it’s not a good job. So this is the idea because you get to come teach what you know, teach what you love,” she said.

“It’s an opportunity for people to really use their skills in a way they wouldn’t be able to in the mainstream workforce.”

It’s an idea that also appears to be gaining traction elsewhere in Canada.

When this program of Trade School Toronto is over, van Looy said that she and her fellow organizers plan to lend their expertise to a group in Vancouver, who have expressed interest in starting a similar organization there.

As for Toronto, she said, “We hope to have regular classes in regular spaces. It would be awesome if it could be something that goes on for years.”

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