Cyn Rozeboom on the Care Clause

Image of a contract document on top of a laptop computer.

Tangled Art + Disability employee agreement

At the beginning of the COVID lockdowns, Tangled Art + Disability began to include a Care Clause in our personnel contracts. On the surface it’s a simple idea: a statement that our organization values the health of the people working with us more than the things they do or create. Yet despite its simplicity, it presents a radical challenge to the traditional idea of management.

The clause currently reads as follows:

In agreeing to work together, Tangled Art + Disability and the Employee recognize that the well-being of any individual associated with the duties detailed in this agreement is more important than any associated deliverable, and thus, all parties agree to take care of themselves and each other to the best of their ability.

Up to COVID, our staffing agreements were based on a document created years ago, studded with faux legalese, and heavily biased towards protecting the organization. Each time we signed on a new person, we would implore them not to let the contract language scare them, that we were there to help them succeed, and that over time we would revise expectations of their role to suit them, not the other way around. Disabled individuals are often set up to fail in “typical” work settings and thus, we often bring on people who shoulder undeserved shame for past work situations where their needs were not accommodated.

Image of the entrance to Tangled Art + Disability art gallery.

Tangled Art + Disability (photo: Tangled Arts)

So why were we not committing to this in writing? Why did we have one thing written in our agreements and another spoken aloud? Before 2020, when I had considered a written commitment to staff wellness over productivity I was besieged with doubts, worried that if employees were given too much power, some might abuse it. As senior management I felt the pressure of a deeply ingrained sense of professionalism and organizational protectiveness.

In the soul-searching early hours of the pandemic lockdown, it became clear that the most important thing to protect was our people. The ethos and energy of our organization exists within them, more than any piece of art. Care IS our standard.

The Care Clause is an official declaration of values. However, in itself it only expresses intention. Without implementation and follow-through it is meaningless.

The hands-on implementation of care can sometimes be difficult and uncomfortable for both management and personnel, especially when they find themselves sandwiched between conflicting factors. Consider: the Care Clause is not invoked when people are feeling good, but rather when people are hurt and unhappy. Its impact, ironically, is to make points of discomfort apparent.

Image of someone working at a laptop while reclining on a giant pillow.

Digital Coordinator Jet Coghlan at work in the Tangled Arts office. Self care is encouraged as part of a healthy work environment. (photo: Rob Colgate)

Since including the clause in Tangled’s agreements some 2 ½ years ago, it has been brought up with me twice. In both cases it was done hesitantly, with a hint of betrayal. “I don’t know if this care clause is working.” At first, the indirectness surprised me. On reflection, I suspect this was the result of two factors:

1) The top-down power structure is so embedded in our culture that even a care-centered organization like Tangled is susceptible to internalized ableism. Traditional expectations of productivity create an adversarial relationship between management and employees while the concept of professionalism discourages expression of personal discomfort for fear of repercussions.

2) The Care Clause remained theoretical until it was tested. None of us at Tangled could predict how (or if) it would “work.” There was some disappointment that our best intentions didn’t anticipate the specifics to ward off, in advance, the unpleasant interactions that actually transpired.

We occasionally get inquiries about our Care Clause from other non-profit leaders, often followed by questions like, “do you have to sacrifice quality?” To which I answer yes and no, depending on how you define “quality.” If quality is measured by productivity, speed, and uniformity, then yes. You may indeed need to miss deadlines, drop a project, or change an idea. But if your definition includes healthy staff and these changes go towards keeping your people rested and engaged, any “loss” in one area is more than made up in another.

Image of the office workspace at Tangled Art + Disability with four people working at their desks.

Tangled staff at work (front to back): Heidi Persaud, Rob Colgate, Francis Tomkins, Sean Lee (photo: Tangled Arts)

Which leads me to my final thoughts – a recommendation and a reminder. (Both as much for myself as anyone else).

The recommendation: if one wishes to adopt a Care Clause, as a manager you should be willing to shoulder the weight of “failure” when things do not work as anticipated, and to listen with compassion when harm has occurred. It is likely that issues will arise during times of duress, when you yourself may also be struggling. If you find yourself feeling defensive, remind yourself that it takes strength and trust for an employee to speak up, so your discomfort is an indication that the clause is working. This is not to say that managers should not treat themselves with care, but that in taking on a managerial role, one is accepting extra responsibility for others as well as oneself. Our job is to bear the weight that we are able to bear. This will be different for everyone and no one can truly assess your strength except yourself.

The reminder is that this experiment is ongoing. So far, the Care Clause is working for Tangled because our staff, volunteers, and artists are invested in our mandate, not just working for a paycheck. It might not work for another group, or even for us at another time. The clause does not simplify the complexities of navigating access. And as of yet, our clause has not been tested by someone trying to rapaciously work the system. Such a circumstance might be a colossal disaster, at which point we may need to reconsider its wisdom.

Image of Margeaux Feldman's Soft Magic installation with a grid of photographs covering the back wall, a video monitor, and a plinth with objects. A person reclines on a pillow and watches the video.

Director of Programming Sean Lee in Margeaux Feldman’s Soft Magic installation, which positioned self-care as radical socio-political resistance. Part of #CripRitual (photo: Michelle Peek Photograpy; courtesy: Bodies in Translation: Activist  Art, Technology & Access to Life; Re•Vision: The Centre for Art & Social Justice at the University of Guelph)

For now, the Tangled Care Clause is helping us redefine how we define and measure quality at work. By elevating the importance of staff well-being, a sense of belonging provides the impetus for productivity. When a more cooperative creative environment is fostered, then individual performance becomes too entangled for measurement. Success is determined holistically as the cumulative product of the entire organization. Our Care Clause equates the health of our people with the health of Tangled itself, and asserts that both these things are worth protecting.


Cyn Rozeboom has acted as Executive Director of Tangled Art + Disability since 2017. She has over thirty years of experience in the non-profit arts sector as a fundraiser, artist, and administrator. Her obsessions include accessible arts policy, storytelling and the shifting dynamics of societal power, joy as resistance, and swimming.