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ArtReach Exec. Director Karen Benita Reyes Says Chicago Is Steadfast & Sturdy

Written by on April 10, 2021

Karen Benita Reyes, Executive Director of ArtReach Chicago.

Karen Benita Reyes, Executive Director of ArtReach Chicago.

Karen Benita Reyes, PhD, is the Executive Director of ArtReach Chicago a member of Chicago’s ACT Collective, and a life-long family-taught fiber and textile artist.

Dr. Reyes earned her Doctorate in 2012 in Urban Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago and was a 2018 Civic Leadership Academy Fellow through the University of Chicago.  Dr. Reyes is an active member of Chicago’s ACT Collective, which enacts self and community care through art-making.

Karen sat down with Vocalo’s Jill Hopkins in January of 2020 to chat about Chicago’s working-class roots, her work with ArtReach Chicago, and how to heal trauma through creativity.


Are you from Chicago? If so, where in the city did you grow up? Describe your neighborhood …

I was born and raised in Chicago. Hyde Park is where I live the most years of my childhood. Now I live in Pilsen on the edge with Little Village. My neighborhood is gentrifying, it’s a working class neighborhood that’s going through a lot of changes, and is a very contested space right now.

My area of Pilsen is full of families, I’m across from the churro factory, as well as a Walgreens it’s open 24 hours, seven days a week and it’s sort of like a social center and a staging area for everybody’s evening and weekend plans. And so we get a nice view of the comings and goings of people as they like, are grabbing one last thing before they go out to a party to a family event, to a bar, club, whatever. Yeah, but mostly a family neighborhood.


 What has it been like growing up/ living in Chicago?

My particular brand of being a Chicagoan is I got a lot of experiences of a lot of different parts of the city, which is pretty unique in Chicago being so segregated. I was able to live on the far South Side, the West side, the North Side, some spaces in between. That has been a really wonderful informative piece of my life because it gave me exposure & relationships in lots of different communities in ways that people don’t often get, at least in this city.

I feel at home in the city of Chicago, in all of its neighborhoods, in the ones that are deemed as dangerous, in the ones that are supposedly desirable, and everything in between. I don’t have one specific neighborhood that is mine, or where I feel that I belong. In terms of the shifts with gentrification and the community change … that can be challenging because it involves setting routes with different types of people in different spaces where I didn’t necessarily grow up on those blocks.


 What do you love about Chicago?

I feel like everybody has some strong relationship with the place that they’re from, and it’s sort of a default “baseline” place … you don’t see the things until you’re exposed to something different. So I started to think about what is different about Chicago, and a lot of the words that came to mind that were not the most exciting words, although I love the city dearly.

It’s a very like steady, sturdy place that has a history of working people of immigrant groups coming here. And so there’s a steadfastness and perseverance to this space that people have. That is really important to me … Chicago’s being a city for workers, and therefore also immigrants. The union history and activism in Chicago makes this an international movement place to me, and that’s the context that I place myself and my work at ArtReach and the ACT Collective within.

People from Chicago don’t tend to be super performative as much as folks from New York or LA. and so sometimes that can seem plain or simple. But the thing that I love about Chicago is its character of steadfastness and perseverance. I think some of that comes from the weather. We all have to live through our hot summers and cold winters together, and we stick to each other, stick to our practices and our work.


Let’s talk about ArtReach Chicago! Tell us about the organization, how you got involved, and the work that you do there …

ArtReach Chicago is an arts nonprofits in East Garfield Park and I’ve been Executive Director since 2012, which is kind of hard to believe. Our mission is about empowering and connecting people through the healing practice of glass blowing and ceramic arts. So we use these art forms as tools for healing complex trauma, as well as just for mental health and wellness. We expand access to rarefied art forms to populations that wouldn’t otherwise or don’t typically have access. We really focus our efforts on the south and west sides. We do some programming in schools. And our flagship program is Project Fire, which is a program for young people who’ve been injured by traumatic violence to gain mentorship connections, employment and glassblowing skills. We do that in partnership with Healing Hurt People in Chicago, which is a hospital based trauma intervention program. So this is the kind of programming we do, where we’re combining art making with other forms of recovery, trauma, intervention and mental health and wellness.


How has the city shaped you and your mission?

The city has shaped me by making me doggedly determined to bring people together across various boundaries. In Chicago that tends to be geographic, class, race, through outreach, that sort of like my not so hidden agenda. How can we bring together emergency room doctors, university professionals, university students, young people from the south side and West Side, CPS high school students, veterans, immigrants, etc. And that means bringing them to our studio from lots of different places in the city, bringing them across their boundaries of profession, social class, etc. So that has really informed a lot of what I’m trying to think about … how we can use art to imagine some new possibility for the city.


At the end of the day, what would you like to give back to the community?

I think if I can be part of a group of artists, arts administrators, thinkers, professors, doctors, etc. Who are creating spaces for us all to be able to make artwork. Imagine our city and and the changes that we would like to see here. Imagine our city growing in a way that is for the people who are from here and for a diverse group of people. That is what I would like to contribute to Chicago.

What does Chicago sound like to you? 

Follow ArtReach Chicago

Follow Chicago ACT Collective

Listen to the Full Interview:

Photography by: Tom Gavin

Interview by: Jill Hopkins

Audio produced by Fyodor Sakhnovski

Edited for Length and Clarity by: Seamus Doheny