Photo: Pearl Dick

Almost a decade ago, glass artist Pearl Dick and clinical psychologist Dr. Brad Stolbach co-founded Project FIRE (Fearless Initiative for Recovery and Empowerment)—an arts program that provides victims of trauma the chance to heal through glassblowing. Program components include mentoring, art and psychoeducation. 

Project FIRE (in partnership with Healing Hurt People-Chicago, a hospital-based violence-intervention program) is now part of the nonprofit organization Firebird Community Arts, an art studio in Chicago’s East Garfield Park area.

Windy City Times recently talked with the outspoken Dick about the program, politics and her message to younger LGBTQ+ creatives. 

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Blown glass items at Firebird. Photo: Andrew Davis

Windy City Times: Talk a little bit about Firebird.

Pearl Dick: Absolutely! Firebird is a 501(c)(3) and we do a lot of youth programming that is trauma-focused. We’re trauma-informed and that information is based on what we learn through Project FIRE, which we run out of our studio.

I’m the artistic director of Firebird and I co-founded Project FIRE in 2014. We devised this idea for having this glassblowing arts-education program specifically for young people who have been impacted by gun violence. They do glassblowing and ceramics, and have group psychology sessions as well; they work really closely with mental health professionals and with teaching artists.

We rebranded and became Firebird Community Arts around the beginning of the pandemic; we were formerly known as ArtReach Chicago. [ArtReach] was part of Lillstreet Art Studio and that’s been around for 30 years. 

I had been working at another studio where I had Project FIRE. But we wanted our own space where nobody would judge us. So [Firebird Executive Director Karen Reyes] were on a search at the same time and we were friends; we joined forces around 2015. She learned about Project FIRE and we agreed on the need to have this programming through a trauma-informed lens. We wanted to work with young people and address issues of social justice and equity in the arts. So this iteration is fairly new.

WCT: So it makes sense that you believe in activism through art.

PD: Absolutely—in all the ways. I believe in providing access to art and increasing diversity in rarefied art forms that have been traditionally white, cis and male. We also work with immigrant populations and more visible work, politically speaking. Of course, we address issues of gun violence, racism and segregation. 

I think the nature of what we do [constitutes] activism. We take people to rallies and educate our young people about voting. We really advocate for them in spaces where they have not had a lot of representation. We have a lot of people here involved in the juvenile justice system, which doesn’t have that much justice.

Firebird Community Arts sign. Photo: Andrew Davis

WCT: You mentioned voting. So you have them involved in this particular municipal election? [Note: This interview took place before the April 4 mayoral runoff between Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas, which Johnson won.] 

PD: Oh, yes! We’re very much involved in getting the vote out. It’s a big, crucial election. We unequivocally support Brandon Johnson. We have people sending out text messages and more. It’s an important one, Andrew! [Laughs

WCT: Yes—and the candidates couldn’t be more different. And politicians are taking sides, of course: For example, Ald. Walter Burnett [of the 27th Ward] endorsed Vallas…

PD: He did? Oh, come on! [Laughs] He’s the alderman in our ward and he’s been in the studio. Even Vallas supporting the police the way he does—it’s really problematic for us and the young people we work with.

I really wanted Lori [Lightfoot] to be our person—a Black lesbian mayor of Chicago. I wanted her to rock it but… I think there was racism, some sexism and maybe some homophobia regarding her loss, but I think she was probably held to more scrutiny than a man would. It’s unfortunate.

And I’m surprised when people in the [LGBTQ+] community come out in favor of conservative candidates. Our rights are being affected, but a lot of wealthy gay people don’t want to be taxed up the wazoo. 

WCT: What does it mean to you to be LGBTQ+ and BIPOC in today’s America?

PD: Well, what it means for me is that I feel a great responsibility to advocate for the next generation that’s coming up in the arts. They’re demanding visibility, they’re demanding access that we didn’t have and that hasn’t been there throughout history. I feel a great responsibility to shift the way things have been. 

We’re in a moment right now where there’s some opportunity for visibility; we need to push and fight. The way things have been is not the way it’ll continue to be done. 

However, [the anti-LGBTQ+ bills passed throughout the country] feel like a pendulum swing. We made a lot of motion toward visibility, access and equity—but then there’s swing toward the Dark Ages concerning women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights. They’re draconian. 

I have a 14-year-old nephew who’s exploring his gender identity and all of his friends are part of the queer community. They’ve got so many options to explore and ways to see how they fit into the world. He sends me [anti-LGBTQ+] articles and it’s heartbreaking to see his outrage about what’s going on. 

On one hand, I feel like they have these really great opportunities that I didn’t have at his age, in the arts and elsewhere. But it’s also really terrifying to see some of the things coming out against young folks today.

WCT: What’s your advice to the next generation of LGBTQ+ creatives?

PD: I really want to encourage people to speak their truths and to stand up for what they believe in. Young people don’t have to do this alone anymore. There are allies and others who will support them. They can have strength through solidarity and be more confident in who they are at that moment.

For more information about Firebird Community Arts, visit   

Andrew Davis is the Digital News Editor for The TRiiBE and a contributing writer to Windy City Times.

This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.