The Ecology Center welcomes Gabriel Cortez as the poet-in-residence for 2023–2024. Cortez was selected for his use of poetry and arts education to explore the topics of climate justice and food sovereignty.

As Ecology Center’s inaugural poet-in-residence, Gabriel leads an arts campaign that invites BIPOC Berkeley artists and audiences to explore local lineages of resistance that shape their relationship to environmental justice and food and land sovereignty. This project builds on the victories of the Measure D campaign that made Berkeley the first US city to pass a soda tax. In his work, he will explore the relationship between culture shift and policy shift, and the work of the artist to champion our community’s hard-won victories in an era defined by backlash to effective progressive policy.

In Fall 2023, Gabriel led a writing workshop series in which local poets were paid to write new original poems that explore the colonial roots of climate change and its effect on our daily lives. Poets drew on the teachings of indigenous peoples, the Black Panthers, youth activists, and more to better understand the shoulders we stand on as we imagine more just and sustainable futures for our communities.

In Spring 2024, select poems will be shared live throughout Berkeley, from assemblies and workshops at Berkeley High to performances at Farmers Markets and Community Gardens.

  • Saturday, March 30, 1-2pm: Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market
  • Saturday, May 25, 1-2pm: Downtown Berkeley Farmers Market
  • Sunday, June 2 [exact time tbd]: Bay Area Book Festival
  • Tuesday, June 18, 2:30-3:30pm: South Berkeley Farmers Market

Gabriel Cortez performs “Perfect Soldier.”

About Gabriel Cortez

Gabriel Cortez is a Black biracial poet, educator, and organizer of Panamanian descent. His work has appeared in The New York Times, National Public Radio, The Rumpus, and The Breakbeat Poets Anthology Volume 4He is a VONA fellow, #BARS workshop alum, Palette Poetry Emerging Poet finalist, and recipient of the YBCA Creative Corps and Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prizes.

Gabriel serves as secretary on the board of directors of Performing Arts Workshop, a BIPOC-led Bay Area nonprofit organization established in 1965 dedicated to anti-racist practices, access to arts and arts education, and helping young people develop critical thinking, creative expression, Socio-Emotional Learning, and essential life skills.

From 2014 to 2023, Gabriel served as Lead Poet Mentor and Director of Programs at Youth Speaks, one of the world’s leading presenters of spoken word performance, education, and youth development programs. For more on Gabriel, visit www.GabrielMCortez.com

November 16th, 2018
by Gabriel Cortez

Bay Area baptised in smoke.
8 days in to the deadliest wildfire in California history,
the air so thick with corpses we cough up tombstones.
Tongues swollen with the taste of burned houses
as our eyes squint to see anything glimmer past the end of the block.
Today, national papers call us the worst air quality in the world.

Beneath an ash-choked sky,
where even the sun is swallowed by ghosts,
six Black boys play basketball,
three-on-three on the crumbling tarmac
outside our un-closed school.

Jeremiah drives to the rim,
lungs inhaling a crude amalgam
of ethanol, arsenic, and asbestos,
the poisonous spines of collapsed homes
scorched into breath.
By the time Jeremiah’s fingers scrape
the backboard, the spectre of an entire city
pours from his lips.

Azad grabs the rebound with one hand,
wipes the sweat from his brow with the other.
Posted up, he notices a familiar slick
shipwrecked against the shore of his knuckles
that paints his blue-brown skin
an impossible shade of black.
Call it new drip, fossil and flammable,
heavy with the scent of petroleum.

Kioni steals the rock when Azad not looking.
Kioni dribbles the ball ostentatiously between his legs.
Kioni bounce the rubber globe so hard, it ripples the septic air.
Ball no longer a ball anymore but a bird
flapping wings against the surface of oil spill
trying to break free.

Every time Chris crosses over,
he scratches years off his life.
A day outside in this air
the equivalent of a year’s worth of cigarettes.
A Richmond oil refinery blooming in his throat.

When Daezon pulls up for the shot,
the orange orb of air rises from his fingers
and disappears into the closed horizon above him.
No one is surprised when it refuses to come back down.
Perhaps because the air so light above the grey miasma,
it floats into heaven not unlike a rapture.

Perhaps this is why we grip the rock
so tight between our palms
so it won’t leave us behind.
Why we tuck a pair of basketball shorts beneath our jeans
like we might not come home tonight
so we packed extra in case we gotta jump out the park,
run our way to freedom.
When the block gets so hot it burns around us
what else could it mean to survive than to flee?

This game be escape route,
a promise no asthma pressed
against our children’s chests
like police pin us down for arrest.
Reaching for a rim
sixteen feet above the grave
they’d rather bury us in.

Don’t believe me?
When I say Isaiah is on fire,
why don’t you imagine a cathedral?
Stained glass delicate,
hand a spire of holy reaching for God?