Essay: Tian Zhangon care

A manifesto for radical care or how to be a human in the arts

Listen to the author read this essay.

When I think about care, I think about safety, I think about freedom and I think about love. I think about relationships – about family, lovers, friends and peers. When I think about care, I think about my elders. The ones whose blood, sweat and tears allowed me to feel relatively safe and free. When I think about care, I think about interconnection – holding space and being held, being grounded in community and in Country. Care is not just a feeling; it is action, process, practice, impact. When I think about care, I think about change. I wonder how we might recreate systems to provide better care. I think about emotional labour – how in some instances care work is nourishing and generative, and other times depleting.

When the pandemic arrived, care was everywhere. Or should I say, care was talked about everywhere. I saw countless arts organisations platforming care on their social media, telling us to take care, that our health and wellbeing were important to them. As the rhetoric of care became the norm, behind the scenes, swathes of casual workers were laid off and programs were shelved with no cancellation pay. Those who still had work were asked to maintain their output whilst dealing with the trauma of a pandemic. We had pinned our hopes of recovery and renewal, as systems failed in a global catastrophe, on this buzzword: care. Now, as we wade through new waves of Covid variants, it seems that not much has changed – except I haven’t seen many statements about care recently.

This isn’t about Covid. It’s about how the pandemic has highlighted cracks that were always present in our systems. In times of crisis, it becomes clear what is valued and what is expendable – and who. Whose contracts are cancelled and who is protected. Who has stability, continues to have work and gets paid. Who is allowed to fall through the cracks. Who is going back to business as usual – and who benefits from this. And who is actually doing the care work to try and get us out of this mess.

Care is not distributed equally. It is intricately linked with power – instrumentalised as reward, denied as punishment or erasure. Certain people are expected to perform care; certain people are more likely to receive. Patterns of care arise from histories of oppression and permeate our structures. Who is usually expected to provide care, often at the expense of themselves? Who feels entitled to receiving care, often at the expense of others? It is no coincidence that women, First Nations people, people of colour, working class people and those at multiple intersections are far more likely to be found in care roles professionally, socially and interpersonally.

As a cis-woman and person of colour in the arts, I have felt the pressure to provide care to those around me, but seldom do I receive the same level of care in return. Working as a curator, producer and arts worker, I have been a conduit between artists, communities and what I’ll refer to in this text as institutions – arts organisations, government, funding bodies, universities. Often I find myself fighting for the wellbeing of artists, communities and collaborators, albeit at the expense of my own. If I am expected to perform care work, who cares for me? And if someone is caring for me, who cares for them?

We can think about the circulation of care in terms of ecosystems – as complex and interconnected networks of giving and receiving. From my time working within and alongside institutions, I have found hierarchical systems to restrict the growth and flow of care ecosystems. Hierarchies promote linear flows of care that fall along lines of power – such as from supervisor to supervised. While care may be given or received informally in other ways, this often goes unacknowledged. The problem with linear systems is that they can easily be destabilised by individuals or circumstances. Whenever there has been an imbalance in care ecosystems, I have witnessed and experienced intense burnout.

If we want to create more healthy ecosystems of care, then I believe that collective and communal practices are critical in manifesting these futures. I don’t want to over-glamorise these, as burnout is rife here too. But in my experience co-creating and participating in collective and communal spaces, I have seen glimmers of hope. I have witnessed ecosystems of care grow and flourish – where individuals can draw strength from and be held by the group; where we can take turns to care, be cared for and to rest. In these beautiful moments, care is not conditional on what we do or who we are. It does not flow from the top down because there is no top; rather it gathers where it is most needed.

This is a manifesto, a provocation to reimagine ourselves in relation to each other, to work and the arts. It is a set of principles that I hope will bring radical care into what we do – care that is generative and healing and joyful and unconditional; that contends with past and present injustices. Radical care means equitable, tangible and sustained improvements to collective wellbeing – not just for some. It requires a profound redistribution, not just of care work but of power and resources. Radical care is changing the material conditions of work and relationships.

This manifesto is a collection of ideas for the doing of radical care (and I use the word ‘doing’ very deliberately). They have come through more than a decade of practice, from my own hurt and healing in this place that I love called the arts. They have been co-generated by friends and collaborators; inspired by community, First Nations custodians, mutual aid, disability justice, transformative justice and abolitionists – those whose practices continue to offer more loving ways to be in relationship.

Radical care is an ongoing practice. Structures and systems exist because we collectively allow them to continue. Perhaps you work in an institution; perhaps you work alongside them or with communities. No matter where you are, you have a role to play in reimagining and redoing. What follows are a series of principles to help instil radical care into your personal and professional ecosystems. There are no quick fixes and there are no case studies here; that would be too easy. Instead, I invite you to sit with this, talk to those around you and do your own work to apply these principles to your experiences and contexts.

We all need care, we all deserve care and we are all responsible for manifesting a future of radical care together. This text is a pool of intentions for you to dip into and take what you need. I hope you may in turn replenish it in your own time.

i. set and respect boundaries

Boundaries are at the forefront of radical care. They send a message to ourselves and to others that we matter, that our experience matters, that our safety matters. Boundaries allow us to rest, process, heal. If we can care for ourselves, we are in an infinitely better place to extend care to others.

Setting boundaries requires us to be clear about our thoughts, feelings, values and needs. What are the principles that you want to live and die by? What drives, sustains and nourishes you? What must you keep for yourself and protect at all costs? We are bombarded by externally-driven values from society, family, peers and the workplace. It takes time and ongoing reflection to understand ourselves and what matters to us.

When we are squeezed for every ounce of labour, energy, time and emotional capacity, it becomes hard to prioritise ourselves. What are the situations that leave you feeling off, deep deep within your body? By setting our limits, we reduce our engagement with life-draining situations and allow energy for the ones that nourish. Such acts can be big or small. Even the most minuscule actions and intentions start to accumulate.

Boundaries are important in any relationship, work or otherwise, but especially when there is a power imbalance. When power is weighted against us, one of the most potent interventions we can do is enact our refusal. We need to get more comfortable with saying no – not now, I can’t do that, this isn’t working for me, I’m at capacity, I’m leaving. Of course, it’s not always so simple. Sometimes it’s not possible to uphold a boundary in the way that we want. Sometimes it’s enough just to know that the edge is near or a line has been crossed, in order to learn where it is. Only then can we prepare ourselves for transgressions in the future.

Boundaries are an evolving negotiation. They are about observing limits, not controlling others. While it’s important to maintain our own, it’s equally important to receive and respect the boundaries of those around us. Recognising other people’s boundaries means valuing their values. This can mean making space for collaborators and colleagues to express their concerns and limits, and be genuinely willing to shift processes to accommodate.

Boundaries are an art form and a practice. Recognise what you need to let go of so that the right things can bloom. Say big and small nos, and really mean it.

ii. invest in the personal

Radical care is relational and it is personal. We can’t give or receive genuine care if we are not in relationship. Every act of care is transmitted through a connection. Even strategies and policies around care are delivered by people.

Relationships are what stay with us once the work or project is over. I don’t believe that we are alive to make stuff. I think we’re here to form bonds – to think, make, grow, laugh and cry together. To find joy in each others’ company, to console and nurture each other, and to help each other survive.

We are often so caught in cycles of producing, making and servicing that we can begin to prioritise these processes and outcomes over the people we are working with. Conversely, relationships can become so valuable that they are objectified, extracted, commodified, exploited and traded for gain. Radical care means investing in the personal. It means allowing relationships genuinely to dictate the process and direction of a project, not the other way around. What if we focused on relationships over products, projects, objects and profit? What if the only outcome was being a better human? What if being together was enough?

It takes time to nurture the trust, commitment and love to build the relationships necessary for radical care to flourish. In the collective and communal spaces that I have been part of, creating ecosystems of care is only possible because we have agreed to be in relationship with each other. Who do you need around you? Who fills your cup so that you can fill someone else’s? Being in relationship involves reciprocity – allowing yourself to both give and receive care. Think about the care that you can activate in the personal spaces around you. How might you initiate flows of care in directions that you’re not used to?

Radical care requires personal investment. It can mean drawing on personal resources and action when the institution fails or falls short. Consider what is within your personal capacity to do in service of radical care, both in your work and personal life. Exercise this power – it is yours – and resist the urge to deflect to higher authorities. Go slow. Move at the speed of your own intuition.

iii. change can happen within the microcosm

Nothing exists in a vacuum. When we enter into relationships, working or otherwise, we carry with us our lived experiences – our sense of self, our sensitivities, past hurts and injustices. On a micro level, our lived experiences enmesh with the lived experiences of others. On a macro level, these interplay with broader sociopolitical contexts that define power and privilege.

Sometimes thinking about change on a macro scale can be overwhelming; instead, we can bring intention to the things that are within our realm, to the micro. Organisations, projects, individual relationships – these are all microcosms within which we can enact radical care. I don’t mean to minimise the macro but the reality is most of us have little influence at this level. Do what you can within your realm of influence. (Of course, if your microcosm crosses over with macro levels of policy, government, law, multinational corporations and so forth, then I encourage you to apply these principles at that scale too.)

When considering the care ecosystem within an organisation, project, community or relationship, think about the power dynamics at play. Whose comfort is prioritised? Who is protected, feels safe? Who is obliged to smile, say yes? Who needs care the most and do they receive it? Who gets to decide? Who gets paid the most and the least? Who isn’t even in the room?

We have the potential within our microcosms – both in work and our personal lives – to redirect the flows of care, resources and power to redress broader societal and historical imbalances. This might mean offering additional resources to those around us who are systemically neglected. It might be paying more attention to the ones who are usually caregivers. It could be as simple as starting with one important person in your life, or a relationship that you want to take steps to initiate.

This isn’t about charity, it’s about being aware of how the macro can influence the micro and vice versa. We need to recognise that we don’t have equal access to money, education and networks, and this impacts on how we can access care. It’s about being strategic in how resources and power are distributed to achieve equity.

We can be intentional about where we give care, energy and resources within our microcosms. Prioritise care of those who need it, not just the ones who are most visible or vocal. Be conscious of the invisible loads that people carry. Consider who might be outside of your care microcosm – how you might bring them in? How might you make space for people to ask for care?

iv. sharing is caring

While we might associate care with the sharing of love, hope, safety and nourishment; radical care also involves the sharing of power, resources, relationships and information. If inequalities are created by hoarding and withholding, then strategic sharing is a way to balance the score.

We all have access to some power, whether it is institutional, financial, societal or through specific relationships. We all have some influence on other peoples’ feelings of safety and wellbeing. What are the resources that you have at your disposal – time, money, power, contacts, information? The things we have are the things we have to share.

Sharing is the opposite of hoarding. Sharing ensures power is not accumulated. One of the goals of radical care is decentralising and reducing our reliance on institutions to care for us. This means divesting from them, claiming communal agency and redirecting resources to those who need it most. Radical care involves transparency, the sharing of information. Radical care requires letting go of control. How can you funnel resources from institutions into communities? What can you do to ensure that care is shared away from power? How can you build processes so information can flow freely? What relationships can you broker so that people don’t fall through the cracks?

At the core of sharing is accountability. We are responsible for ourselves, for each other and for future generations. Be critical and intentional about who you share with and why. Who gains from your care? Do you tend to share with those in power? Do you expect anything in return – like trust, respect, a returned favour, a reward? The best way to be accountable for the power you possess is to give it away to those with less.

Stop looking to institutions to care for us and start remembering how to care for each other. (When I say this I don’t mean to let institutions off the hook either. They should be practicing these principles too.) Think about how you share, with whom and why. Prioritise sharing with those who have the least. Recognise your own power and privileges, and redistribute outwards. Be critically generous.

v. grow interdependently

We are all enmeshed in an interconnected network of care, whether we know it or not. Radical care is community care – giving communities agency to grow their own ecosystems of support and healing. It is allowing ourselves to lean on each other.

The concept and practice of community is different for different people. Who are you in relationship with, and are they in relationship with each other? Who can you trust and rely on? Who’s going to catch you? Maybe this is friends, family, coworkers; maybe it’s people you’re close to geographically, through shared identities, spaces or interests; maybe you’re interconnected with multiple communities.

Radical care is multidirectional and interdependent. In this ecosystem, care doesn’t flow in one direction or even reciprocally but rather gathers where it is needed. It means being able to give and receive care situationally. Interdependence allows us to take care of everyone without exhausting ourselves. It means the burden of care can be shared. It also enables us to receive the full spectrum of care that we need by drawing on different parts of the community.

Everyone deserves care. Who do you hold and who holds you? Who isn’t being held? Find and keep close the ones who make giving and receiving care easy. This will make it easier for you to nurture the ones who find it more difficult. Be attuned to those within your orbit who might be in need of care and create ways to bring them into the fold.

If we can practice interdependence to grow communities, and interdependence between communities, we can create vast, interlinked ecosystems of care. Interdependence, combined with sharing outwards (see above) allows us to reduce our reliance on institutions with each and every relationship.

All we have is each other. All we need is each other. We can’t do this on our own.


This manifesto is a provocation, it is the start of a conversation, it is permission to dream. In practice, radical care is messy and hard work. No one is a perfect practitioner and the care ecosystems I’m a part of are often haphazard. It’s important to reflect on our relationship to control and any desires for this work to be orderly, clean and linear. Radical care is iterative. Do the best you can with the resources and energy that you have. Be patient. Give yourself permission to try and permission to fail. Start now, start small. Enjoy the process.


This text was written across unceded Dharug, Gadigal and Bidjigal lands.

Thank you to bell hooks, adrienne maree brown, Thich Nhat Hanh, Yumi Sakugawa, Sara Ahmed, Mia Mingus, Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, Dean Spade, and all the dreamers and the fighters whose work inspired this text. Thank you to my collaborators and the spaces that have allowed me to imagine, practice and understand radical care – Pari, bell hooks reading group, Gudskul and P2P Ngariung, Contingencies of Care, Gendai, Intersect, Parallel and Western Sydney Mutual Aid. Special thanks to Sasanki Tennakoon, Naomi Segal, Leen Rieth, Evgenia Anagnostopoulou and Sebastian Henry-Jones for your feedback; to Athol Young for starting me on this journey; to Hayley Coghlan and Aunty Julie Jones for the moral support; and to Ema Tavola for the manifesto inspo.

Dedicated to Sab D’Souza.