Meet Karen Benita Reyes, PhD.

Karen is a product of Chicago’s public schools and a life-long, family-taught, fiber and textile artist. She has been the Executive Director ofArtReach at Lillstreet since 2012. ArtReach is a non-profit dedicated to bringing arts programming to under-served populations throughout Chicago. Before ArtReach, Karen worked as a teaching artist at BBF’s Knitlab program for teens and taught a college bridge program for formerly incarcerated adults. Karen also served for eight years as the Managing Editor of the international academic journal Latino Studies and has held teaching positions at St. Augustine College, University of Illinois at Chicago, St. Leonard’s Adult High School, and Literacy Works. Her history of volunteer service includes tutoring students at St. Leonard’s Adult High School, UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico), Young Women’s Leadership Charter School, and National Teachers Academy.

Karen earned her Doctorate in 2012 in Urban Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her dissertation explored the school-prison nexus in Chicago and the US. She holds a MA in Linguistics TESOL from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a BA in Latin American and Latino Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz.


What don’t people know about you?
People might not know that I can run household electric. I can change a car’s oil and filters. I repair basic plumbing. I’m a quick housepainter. I can weave, sew leather, knit, and crochet. My parents taught me all that.

Who do you admire?
I admire my mother and grandmother for being bold and unabashedly brave women.  A great and striking example is when I was about 14 my mother organized for me to ride out to DC by myself in the care of a busload of women from NARAL and the National Organization for Women (NOW) for a record-breaking pro-choice march on Washington. The idea was that I would meet my grandmother, who lived in DC, at the rally. We made a painted cloth banner that read “Keep Your Laws Off My Body!” and I marched with a coat hanger on my head. I never found my grandmother at the rally, but it was a powerful learning experience about independence, political voice, and the power of a busload of women to take over a midwestern truck stop. As a parent of an 8 year old girl, I try to channel the bravery it must have taken to send me off across country with a busload of radical women.

What expression or saying do you love? 
My mentor and friend, Erika Meiners, said to me “self doubt is a tool of the patriarchy.” I like that one and think of it and share it a lot.

How long do you think you would you survive the zombie apocalypse? 
I’ve just started watching The Walking Dead, so this question has been on my mind. Half of me thinks I could live a good long while because I’m handy, strong, and resourceful and have a lot of friends and family that have those qualities too. The other half of me thinks that I’d lack the ruthlessness toward other humans to make it very far.

What’s your craziest idea?
I’m a pretty practically minded person, so my craziest idea isn’t that outlandish, and I hope it really happens someday. I want to get an old school bus, take out every other seat, and put in tables with sewing machines so that we can drive it all over the place and teach folks to sew. I guess maybe on the level of thinking bigger, I love the idea of a world where we don’t put people in cages. A world without prisons where we actually gave people care and reduced harms rather than multiplying them. I don’t think it’s crazy, but others might.

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Photo Credit: Jamie Kelter Davis Photography