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Crosscurrents

Berkeley's Ecology Center poet-in-residence hopes to shift culture

Poet Gabriel Cortez performs at the San Francisco art center, CounterPulse, in 2023
Nick James
Poet Gabriel Cortez performs at the San Francisco art center, CounterPulse, in 2023

It’s early in the day at Berkeley High School. Freshmen shuffle into their second period Ethnic Studies class.

As the bell rings, the teacher announces they have a special guest speaker today. Gabriel Cortezis a longtime East Bay resident, poet and educator.

He introduces himself, “What’s up everybody? Good morning. My name is Gabriel Cortez, pronouns he/him/his…”

Gabriel starts his poetry workshop by talking about something the students might not expect: food.

"So, these are the two big concepts we’re looking at today: extractive food systems, and this idea of food sovereignty." He’s talking about the ways that food production can be both harmful and helpful to local communities and the environment.

At first, the kids are a tough crowd. They’re obedient, but not exactly enthused.

“So if everyone can repeat after me, say 'extractive,'" Gabriel instructs.

They respond, "Extractive.” 

"Nice. And repeat after me, say 'sovereignty.'"

"Sovereignty."

"Awesome," Gabriel says.

It’s clear Gabriel has done this before. He has the students do more call and response. And snap their fingers when they hear something they like. All things you might hear at a poetry open mic. Soon, they are loud.

"Cheeseboard! The Edible Schoolyard! Berkeley Bowl."

They’re talking in small groups, sharing examples of sustainable and locally owned food programs. Like community gardens and farmers markets.

"School lunch," one student says. 

"School lunch!" Gabriel responds enthusiastically. "You know that’s a deep Bay Area history, actually. Y’all know who invented the Free Breakfast Program, right? The Black Panthers. Y’all didn’t know that?"

"I knew that," they reply. 

Gabriel says today’s goal is to get the students reflecting on their experiences with food. And how food production, withits carbon emissions, relates to climate change. Later, he has them write about it.

"The task is just to tell your story. And see where those words fit in between. But the goal is not to sound like me. It’s not to sound like your favorite poet, writer or musician. It’s to sound like you."

It’s quiet, this time, because the students are focused inwards. Pencils move quickly.

Gabriel is here today because he’s the Ecology Center’s first poet-in-residence. The environmental nonprofit runs farmer’s markets, waste collection and education programs. Gabriel’s residency with them started back in 2023.

He sees the role of the poet as questioning parts of dominant culture that are harmful, like racism and sexism.

"And as poets, it's important that we think about: How do we facilitate conversations that can help counter that culture?"

Gabriel’s work with the Ecology Center is about shifting the culture around how we think about the environment. He first learned about the center as a Berkeley resident.

"Compost, compost in Berkeley. I always love when family members come around, like, 'What is that?'" 

‘Well, let me show you.’ And yeah, the Ecology Center was probably the first to show me how to do that.”

About a decade ago, Gabriel was performing at poetry slams around the Bay, when he went to a poetry and activism workshop sponsored by the Ecology Center. Gabriel is Black and biracial, and he performed a poem about the disproportionate impact of Type II Diabetes on people of color.

“And this was one of the first times where I was being invited to write about a particular topic and think about – how does this relate to my experiences, my community, my family?” 

After the workshop, he helped the Ecology Center campaign for the first city-wide soda tax, which helps fundfood and gardening programs in Berkeley schools.

Now, Gabriel is once again using poetry for social change. In summer 2023, he asked the Ecology Center if he could be their poet-in-residence and help further their environmental justice goals with the help of a state-funded grant. He remembers the day he got it.

“It was incredible, exciting — I was fist pumping in the car … for me, this is the first time that I've been able to be a full time artist.”

And he gets to do what he loves. Use poetry to change culture. Specifically in downtown Berkeley, a region he admires for its history of resistance.

With the grant, Gabriel hosts workshops for local poets with the Ecology Center. He coordinates poetry performances at local events, farmers markets, and Berkeley High. The goal is to share stories that the community needs to hear.

"The conversation of our time is environmental justice, is climate change. We know that we need pieces, poems, artists, just like we need teachers, students, politicians, activists that are oriented towards what are other ways of being besides the one that got us here."

And he brings his workshops to students. Workshops like the one I’m attending today. He says listening to students read what they wrote is one of the best parts.

“And that’s the heart of the work when we’re talking about culture shift. It takes a brave poet to say: ‘What else? What if we do this?’ 

And within the space of the classroom — where silence is the norm, where the teacher is at the front, and they're the only speaker — for a poet to raise their hand and in that moment, become the teacher. That's a really, really exciting moment to get to witness.

Back in the classroom, Gabriel spots a student’s raised hand — volunteering to share a poem. “Is that a hand over there? Yeah, snap it up for the poet right over here y’all!”

The student begins to read: “I find food on my table, I am lucky. Steaming pots and full bubbling pans, set on cork trivets…”

"Whenever we're bringing our poems to the community, we know that we're planting seeds that are probably going to bloom out of sight."

The student continues to read. “Follow the rule that your food should pass through no more than ten hands to get to you, that you can pass that food, that care, that heart and soul right back down the line to those who deserve it. Find your food where it comes from.”

Gabriel snaps, along with the class. “Let’s go, poet! Snap it up!”

One thing I certainly notice is how much louder the kids are when he leaves.

Crosscurrents