By Anna Maria Moubayed
After teaching at Ryerson and directing the School of Child and Youth Care since 2006, Kiaras Gharabaghi has been appointed the new dean of the Faculty of Community Services (FCS).
On June 11, Ryerson announced it was appointing Gharabaghi as the new dean of the faculty, effective Aug. 9. Gharabaghi is replacing Lisa Barnoff, who has acted as dean since 2016.
According to the announcement written by former interim provost and vice-president, academic, Saeed Zolfaghari, “Gharabaghi is a respected academic leader with over 20 years of experience in community engagement and program development.”
“Kiaras brings a wealth of knowledge to this role,” the statement reads. “Throughout his time at Ryerson, Kiaras has demonstrated a deep commitment to collegiality, a passion for teaching and learning, and the capacity to protect what is valued while also striving for change.”
The Eyeopener sat down with Gharabaghi to learn more about his new position. Here’s what he had to say.
How does it feel to now be dean of the Faculty of Community Services?
It feels busy. It feels great, of course, in the sense that it’s an opportunity to think much more holistically because there are now many different disciplines that I have to be engaged with. I have to think about it academically as well as how those disciplines become professions in the field, and how all of these things interact.
You’ve been involved in the creation of several initiatives at the university, like Social Innovation for Social Justice, Ryerson becoming the first Ashoka Changemaker-designated campus in Canada and the FCS in Action conference in 2016. What plans do you have for the community now that you’re dean of FCS?
I hope to support and promote research that is done collaboratively between academics and between members of the community, including highly marginalized community members and students. One of my core concerns is the well-being of everybody around me, including students faculty and staff. We won’t accomplish anything useful as a community if we are stressed and struggling with our mental health. The idea of giving rise to joy is something that can actually help us in making a transition to a place where we feel a little better about our own lives, and about how we are in community with others, so we can accomplish more together.
What was your childhood like growing up?
I grew up in many different places, on three different continents, actually. I was born in Germany, but I grew up in Iran and lived there until shortly after the revolution, then had to leave under not very good circumstances. I ended up in Switzerland for a bit, and then in Germany. I came to Canada as an 18-year-old.
I grew up with four siblings, who are all very close to me in age. I spent almost all of my time on the streets playing with my friends, with the kids from the neighbourhood and enjoyed that thoroughly. But after leaving Iran, it was a more difficult time. My teenage years were a little bit more troubled, partly because of the experiences of the revolution.
How did those experiences shape you into who you are today?
All of those experiences made me into someone who understands not to take things for granted, and to be appreciative of the joy that comes your way.
The experience of moving between continents, between language groups and cultures for the first 20 years of my life really shaped who I am today. I have no doubt about the impact that had on how I see myself in the world and in the community. Migration really is a very defining element of one’s life. Over the years, I’ve maintained ties to all of those places. I see myself living in a very transnational context and appreciate a sort of global citizenship.
What led you to your career in child and youth care practice?
When I first came to Canada, I spoke very little English. I had no money, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. So, I looked for a job. I saw an ad in a paper that seemed to suggest that the job is about working with teenagers who have problems. I applied, having no qualifications whatsoever, and I got a job working in a group home for kids who were in the care of the state. Later, I found out that they hired me because they liked my accent. There were no qualifications required at the time to do that kind of work.
After working with young people at the group home for a while, I got hooked and worked with families and communities facing adversity for 25 years.
Describe your academic journey.
I started at the University of Guelph. Originally, I took mostly science courses, largely because I didn’t speak English and those courses tend to be less language-centred. I thought it would be a good way of learning English at a slower pace. Eventually, I shifted to more social and community-focused studies. I did both my undergrad and my master’s degree at the University of Guelph. My master’s degree is actually in international development. I took some time between my master’s and PhD and worked again in the field. I wanted to live by the ocean, so I went to Halifax and did my PhD at Dalhousie University.
Before going into academia, you worked as a practitioner, manager and director in the social sector. How did that experience affect your decision to go into academia?
Anybody who’s worked in the social sector really recognizes that there’s a lot wrong in our society, in our communities—there are a lot of systemic and structural problems. But when you’re a practitioner, it’s hard to engage those problems because you’re very busy dealing with people right in front of you. After many years of doing this, I needed to be able to engage issues that are on a much broader level and that are more systemic and structural. I wanted to find an opportunity to be able to do that.
This is always the challenge. Our students who graduate from social work and child and youth care really encounter a lot of difficult things in their practice. Many will eventually find that there’s value in trying to get to a place where you can impact how things are organized and the cultures that are embedded in organizations.
How did your time as a director of the School of Child and Youth Care shape your career and your time at Ryerson?
That was a very joyful time for me. First of all, I was very happy with great colleagues, great students and great staff. It gave me an opportunity to realize something that we always talk about, but rarely do. The School of Child and Youth Care, when I came, all the faculty members were white. The reality is that our youth workers tend to work overwhelmingly with racialized people. I really found it quite disturbing that we have this disconnect between whose lived experiences we were talking about, versus who was talking about them.
The thing that was most important to me during my time as director was to work with my colleagues to shift who’s actually talking. I’m very pleased that together, we were able to dramatically change that. The school today has the most Black faculty members of any school at the university. It is, in fact, a predominantly Black faculty school. I think that was both necessary and appropriate, given the context of the field. I feel good about that.
*Answers have been edited for length and clarity