A bullseye-shaped image that centers on a person in need and labels the rings outward, including family, friends, co-workers, etc

Circles of Care in the workplace

I first learned about Circles of Care from my brother, I think, when he was going through his chaplaincy training. It goes like this:

The patient is in the center of the circle. Surrounding them in a ring are their parents, partners, or closest loved ones. The next ring out is more extended family, less-intimate-but-still-close friends, possibly religious supports. You can draw as many rings as seem relevant.

Care work goes in to the ring, stress and anger go out of the ring.

It’s not surprising that when I went to go look up references for this post, the best ones I found were in palliative care and feminist theory. Both those fields are intensely interested in care work.

What that means for us at work right now is that we need to figure out who should be in the center of the ring – our Black co-workers – and make sure that we are providing the support they want without asking them to do the work of taking care of white people’s feelings. Asking to be reassured that we (I am a middle-aged white woman) are doing what we should be doing is asking for care. That’s the wrong direction.

At my company, all of my management has done a great job establishing that they are available and willing to talk to us, and thus doing care work for us. Managers are on the ring outside of non-managers. Care goes in. Good.

Managers are also humans! They also need someone to care for them! That should be higher levels of management, their friends and family, and their peers. I strongly encourage people managers to take some time to meet with their peers and take care of each other so that they have the resources and energy to care in. Similarly, people in leadership, founders, and people on boards need to have someone to talk to and be nice to them when they are dealing with a lot of stress. Peer groups will help here, too, and pre-existing structures. It’s really hard to build a support structure for yourself in the middle of a crisis.

It seems like there is eventually a lack of people to do the caring work, as you get to the outer edges of the circle, but of course none of us are only one thing in our lives. We are mutually interdependent. I may be trying to listen to and help a co-worker, but I’m getting support from my peers, and they are doing that work for me, not my co-worker, and my peers are also getting support from each other and their families, who may in turn be supported by work that my family is doing.

It’s really hard to be in a crisis. Getting a cancer diagnosis, or losing a job, or having a neighbor murdered is never going to be your finest hour for productivity or sympathy or niceness. What’s going to help you and sustain you is the network of support you have built by being there for others in their crisis. If I say that taking a hot dish is part of buffering your future self, it seems transactional. It’s never that 1-to-1. But paying care in to your people and your community means that they know how to support you when you need it.

I’m in the Twin Cities. That was my spice shop, my bookstore, the streets that I have shopped on, the places I have biked and waved and talked to people. I’ve stood on that corner in the rain, and over here is where I learned to take a city bus. It’s been amazing to watch people pour money and care into our community, while it’s still smouldering, while the marches are shutting down freeways, while we’re still under curfew. It’s like the aid that we send other cities when they have tornados, or floods. We’re in the center of the circle for a bit.

I hope that while we are here, you all will see that in our crisis, we are finally listening to what our activists have been saying for years. A Black student leader, Jael Kerandi laid the groundwork for the University of Minnesota to break ties with the Minneapolis police department. Black Liberation Minnesota helped create a generation of young leaders who pushed for removing police officers from their schools, and the Minneapolis School Board just cancelled that contract. When I worked at a restaurant in Midway, we had a police officer in uniform with us at night. Also, our instructions for robberies were to just hand over the money and cooperate. So why did we need a man with a gun to do that? Maybe we don’t need so many armed officers, eh?

If care goes in to the circle, it doesn’t mean we are exempt from work assignments coming out. Work is caring in action, not just emotion.

I got the image for this blog post from an interesting, if philosophically dense article by Nicholas Gruen.

He cites Joan Tronto‘s work on the ethics of caring, and I’ll leave you with that:

  1. Attentiveness
    Attentiveness is crucial to the ethics of care because care requires a recognition of others’ needs in order to respond to them.The question which arises is the distinction between ignorance and inattentiveness. Tronto poses this question as such, “But when is ignorance simply ignorance, and when is it inattentiveness”?
  2. Responsibility
    In order to care, we must take it upon ourselves, thus responsibility. The problem associated with this second ethical element of responsibility is the question of obligation. Obligation is often, if not already, tied to pre-established societal and cultural norms and roles. Tronto makes the effort to differentiate the terms “responsibility” and “obligation” with regards to the ethic of care. Responsibility is ambiguous, whereas obligation refers to situations where action or reaction is due, such as the case of a legal contract. This ambiguity allows for ebb and flow in and between class structures and gender roles, and to other socially constructed roles that would bind responsibility to those only befitting of those roles.
  3. Competence
    To provide care also means competency. One cannot simply acknowledge the need to care, accept the responsibility, but not follow through with enough adequacy – as such action would result in the need of care not being met.
  4. Responsiveness
    This refers to the “responsiveness of the care receiver to the care”. Tronto states, “Responsiveness signals an important moral problem within care: by its nature, care is concerned with conditions of vulnerability and inequality”. She further argues responsiveness does not equal reciprocity. Rather, it is another method to understand vulnerability and inequality by understanding what has been expressed by those in the vulnerable position, as opposed to re-imagining oneself in a similar situation.

We are called to respond, to work, to do the thing, not just feel the feelings.