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Joy Harjo

Writer, musician, and current Poet Laureate of the United States Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. An American Sunrise—her eighth collection of poems—revisits the homeland from which her ancestors were uprooted in 1830 as a result of the Indian Removal Act. Photo by Paul Abdoo

$15k Grant Will Fund Programming Based on Joy Harjo’s An American Sunrise

Update Jan. 27, 2021- The dates of this year's NEA Big Read: Toms River have been changed from February to March 25 through May 28, including a rescheduled appearance from Joy Harjo now set for May 27. More information will be available soon.

June 16, 2020-- The National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with Arts Midwest, has awarded Toms River Regional Schools a grant to host NEA Big Read for a fourth consecutive year.

An Arts Endowment initiative in partnership with Arts Midwest, the NEA Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Toms River Regional Schools is one of only 84 nonprofit organizations across the nation selected to receive an NEA Big Read grant to support a community reading program between September 2020 and June 2021.

"We have become even more aware this year of the important ways the arts help us connect with others, and how they bring meaning, joy, and comfort to our lives,” said Mary Anne Carter, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “These 84 organizations leading NEA Big Reads will provide opportunities for deep discussion and ways to help us better understand one another.”

In 2017, TRRS became the first school district to be named an NEA Big Read grantee, as the program to that point had only been open to libraries and arts organizations. It has been awarded every year since.

The district will utilize the $15,000 grant to fund programming based on An American Sunrise, an award-winning collection of Native American-themed poetry by Joy Harjo. The country’s first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, Harjo was recently appointed to her second consecutive term in that role. For NEA Big Read: Toms River’s keynote event scheduled for Feb. 4, 2021, Ms. Harjo will visit the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts at Ocean County College to speak about her work, perform music, and sign copies of her book.

“This selection is quite different than any we’ve explored through our Big Reads thus far,” said NEA Big Read: Toms River Co-Director and Intermediate ELA Supervisor Christy Downs.” I think our students and community will be surprised to learn how deeply it connects to their own experiences, as well as the broader history of Native American heritage in Toms River.”

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. An American Sunrise is her eighth collection of poems, and it revisits the homeland from which her ancestors were uprooted in 1830 as a result of the Indian Removal Act.

“When we’re considering our proposed book selection each year for this program, we make a sincere effort to connect it to our community, to personalize it,” said NEA Big Read: Toms River Co-Director and High School ELA Supervisor Tonya Rivera. “The Lenni Lenape Tribe were the original residents of what is now known as Toms River, and this year’s program will invite lessons on history, ancestry, art and music, and of course language arts and poetry.”

Ocean County Library will again serve as the district’s primary partner, and will plan a robust and relevant series of events and activities. The Grunin Arts Center will also play a huge role by hosting the keynote event, and OCC’s English Department and Foundation are consistent supporters of and consultants for NEA Big Read: Toms River. For this year’s program, the district plans to welcome the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, based in southern NJ, into its partnership fold.

This year’s program will also be unique in that it will technically be the second NEA Big Read the district will host during the upcoming school year. The Covid-19 virus forced the postponement of the 2019-2020 program, based on Ron Rash’s novel Burning Bright, until this fall.

“Hosting two NEA Big Reads in one calendar year will be a tall order, no doubt, but one that I know this team and community is up for,” said Coordinator of the Office of Grants and Communication Mike Kenny. “It’s quite special, actually. To welcome two nationally-renowned authors, including our country’s poet laureate, to our town in the span of a few months is something not many school districts, if any, can claim.”

As it looks with anticipation to the reopening of public schools, Toms River Regional Schools continues to both battle and endure significant state aid reductions from Senate Bill S2. More than $5 million in state aid was lost heading into the upcoming school year, along with millions in funding losses already sustained over the past several years, and with more cuts on the horizon. News of being awarded another NEA Big Read was indeed welcome, maybe more so than ever.

“Grant opportunities like this help us provide our students with innovative and impactful educational experiences, despite continuing financial obstacles,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Marc Natanagara. “And while the Big Read continues to be a unique opportunity for learning, I can’t think of a better time to rebuild and celebrate our community.”

NEA Big Read: Toms River is scheduled to run Feb. 1-26. For more information about the program, visit

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