In Their Own Words - A Meet and Greet with the Leaders of Thacher’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office

In the summer of 2022, Thacher welcomed two new team members to the School’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Director Sepideah Mohsenian-Rahman, MSW and Associate Director (a newly created position) Christian Garris may look familiar to the Thacher community—Sepideah lived on campus a few years ago with her children and husband, then Fisher Fellow Dr. Ali Rahman, and Christian has been a member of the Admission Office since the summer of 2021—but their more direct oversight of this work at Thacher is a newer development in the School’s continued and expanding efforts in this realm.

We sat down with the dynamic DEI duo to learn more about their career paths, personal and professional interests, and the opportunities for inclusion and belonging they see ahead for the students and the School.

Christian Garris
Associate Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Associate Director of Admission

Prior to moving to Ojai from Massachusetts with his wife Erin and newborn son August, Christian spent four years working in admission at Tabor Academy, where he is also an alumnus. Christian also brings a strong background in diversity, equity, and inclusion work and, in addition to his roles in the DEI and Admission Offices, he also coaches football, advises 9th grade, and works in Lower School. While he cheers on all student teams and achievements, you'll be sure to catch him in a Patriots jersey most Sundays.

Sepideah Mohsenian-Rahman, MSW
Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Counselor

Sepideah is a social worker with deep experience in educational and community settings and brings over 10 years of experience to this role, including serving as the Program Director of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Multicultural Center, where she curated events and lectures featuring leading scholars, and worked closely with student affairs and academic departments to elevate student belonging and success. Additionally, Sepideah supports on-campus wellness initiatives by offering therapy as an associate clinical social worker, ACSW. Sepideah received BAs in International Studies, Peace & Conflict Resolution and Religious Studies from American University, and a Master of Social Work from Columbia University. She lives on campus with her husband Ali and their two children, Idris and Azadeh.


Q. When/how did you feel called to this work?

Christian: My "a-ha!" moment was definitely boarding-school specific. I spent four years in one as a student, and when I returned as an adult to work at my alma mater—showing up as one of very few people of color on the faculty—I noticed that people were often coming to me for help with solving DEI- related problems, first related to race but eventually broader issues. I realized that just being a person of color in that space didn't mean that I had all the answers, so I became a student again and dug into professional development and networking opportunities. Through that I expanded my knowledge about what it means to be a person of color in these spaces. It also started to open my eyes to all the other identities that people hold in boarding schools and how important it is to acknowledge those identities and celebrate them.

Sepideah: As a social worker, we are trained to focus on the more complex and challenging parts of society, so my curiosity is focused most heavily on the ways that people and policies perpetuate harm from every level. I feel my best when I engage in that curiosity by offering care and skilling myself up to meet different people's needs, helping others to tend to their own needs, and taking a systems approach that asks, “Why is it this way? How is it this way? Who benefits, who is struggling to hold on?”

In my training, my specialization was a macro approach to social work, and while clinical social work is part of that, it placed particular emphasis on legal, political, and economic factors that contribute to the need for social work as a profession. It's special for me now being able to synthesize both of those experiences on campus, in a community as well-intentioned and dynamic as Thacher. And working with students in particular is so rewarding to me because teenagers bring so much power and momentum and energy and curiosity to the table. They are the compass and the map at The Thacher School.

Q. How did you know that Thacher was the right place for you and your families at this point in your careers/lives?

Sepideah: My journey here began back in high school, when I played soccer against Thacher. I was so taken by the campus and went on an advocacy mission to convince my parents to allow me to apply, which sadly didn’t happen. I didn't think of Thacher again really, until the Fisher Fellowship opportunity came on Ali's (Dr. Ali Rahman, Fisher Fellow from 2018-2020 and now an English teacher) radar at a really good time for us. He was in his PhD program. We had just had our first child. I was working well into the night running events at UCSB. That journey led to us living on the Thacher campus for a few years and really taking to this notion of community and our children being surrounded by happy, loving teenagers, horses, and cows. We were able to engage in a lifestyle for our young child and ourselves as a young family that we could have only imagined in our wildest dreams. It was so good for us that our youngest was born during the Fisher Fellowship!

When the Fisher Fellowship ended and we moved to Pennsylvania for Ali to teach at UPENN, we were proud of what we had given to and learned from Thacher. That experience allowed us to reevaluate our perception of what we wanted for our family and what truly aligned with our core values. So, when this opportunity presented itself again last year, we realized that we had an invitation to enact those values more authentically and be more in touch with them here. We also appreciate the integration of the family and work life—we really enjoy working together as a couple, which we’ve done for nearly a decade—and love knowing that we and our kids have such deep friendships and diverse role models here.

Christian: My wife Erin (Thacher's Wellness Center Coordinator) was seven months pregnant when I got the job offer and our son August was six-weeks old when we packed up the car and moved to Ojai. The whole interview process was virtual because of covid—I never set foot on campus, but I felt really good about moving from a big boarding school to a smaller community. That was important to me.

As soon as we arrived on campus in mid- August we were immediately greeted with open arms from everyone. But the moment that we really knew we had made the right decision was when the students returned a couple of weeks later and I started to get to know them and realize how much potential they have, how much care they have—and felt how much love they show to my family. It was then we knew we had landed in the right place, and there have been so many moments that have confirmed that since.

Q. Sepideah, given that you’ve had the unique experience of being a part of this community once before, what changes have you noticed since you left in 2020?

Like us, the school was going through its own process of articulating its core values and alignment there. Clearly, during the period when we were considering returning, it was a very tumultuous time on campus and in our community, and it was beautiful to see how head- on the School was willing to navigate deep complexities and engage in an accountability process. That made the invitation to come back even better because it was authentic and transparent in a way that we could really appreciate. With a background in peace and conflict resolution, I have deep trust in people’s and institutions' capacity for transformation and repair.

In terms of changes since we were here last, there have been changes all around, including among the faculty and the energy from students. The last few years have been a hard time for many, many folks in many, many ways. Some of that is unique to Thacher, but much of it is also related to the pandemic and uprisings in every definition of that term.

Q. Where do you see the biggest challenges and brightest hopes ahead?

Christian: I think the biggest challenge right now is people learning how to be back physically together in community, understanding what it means to share a space and to live and work and play and just be together. That's something that we really lost in the pandemic. Now we're all here together and we're all trying to figure it out again. Our goal is to guide and shape that reentry into healthy, positive ways through our work. There's a unique opportunity right now to reshape what it means to be at Thacher.

Sepideah: Thacher means so much to so many people in such a beautiful way, and the complexities of supporting the wide range of perspectives and relationships across various generations is a good invitation and a complex, layered one. While we must first prioritize our current students and employees, our challenge and hopes are to foster for all who love Thacher a community that feels safe, secure, creative, and vibrant.

Q. When your children are old enough to become Thacher Toads, what do you hope they’ll experience here?

Sepideah: I hope that my kids’ future as Thacher students is one in which they feel like they can organically, comfortably, usefully show up in their fullness without having to advocate for their own safety or care. Their wellness and mental health is my priority, as is building robust infrastructures for them to thrive in that way. We know that is directly linked to how they receive support and are cared for in educational spaces at the intersection of all their identities, whether it's race or faith or sexuality. I wish for them an equitable opportunity to engage with the vision of Thacher that folks who experience it in its fullness receive. I'm super excited, honestly, for them to engage with people and the planet through their current and future Thacher experiences.

Christian: August will be class of 2039! That’s difficult to conceptualize, but I use that thought to frame a lot of the work that I do. I am constantly asking myself, “What kind of school do I want to have a hand in creating for him? When August graduates, we have no idea what the world is going to be like outside of Thacher. But what values can he pick up from now until then that are going to prepare him for whatever else is out there?

The beauty of growing up in a boarding school community is that the little kids get to learn from all the students ahead of them. My hope is that, 30-40 years from now, August will meet these kids again and they will remember him running around in diapers outside the dining hall, and he will remember who babysat for him or just hung out with him at lunch. Those core memories are so important.

The fact that we get a hand in doing this for the School while we're raising kids who will also potentially be at the School one day is a fascinating dynamic— the perfect mix of raising your own child while you're also helping raise so many other people's children for the time that they're here. It all goes together.

Q. What brings you joy outside of work?

Sepideah: I really enjoy engaging in the care and nourishment of people in my kitchen, with my children, with my husband. That has always been a through line to our family flow and feels even more sacred to intentionally reengage with one another in the kitchen here because we are privileged to have food prepared for us all the time. And it's fun to play on our wonderful campus and on our trails and in the Sespe.

Christian: The protection that I feel from the mountains and the valley is a huge one, and in the same breath, the ability to be at the ocean in 20 minutes—the duality of the protection of the mountains and the freedom of just running into the ocean brings me and my family joy.

In Their Own Words is an excerpt from the Fall/Winter edition of Thacher Magazine, digitally available on Issuu. 

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