Meeting Joy Harjo: Poet Laureate Delivers Moving Keynote Speech to Bay Shore High School Youth

Joy Harjo with Bay Shore High School students at the Ethnic Pen Conference. (Photo: BSHS Twitter page)

By Nicole Cardone

On Friday, April 8, the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States spoke at Bay Shore High School’s Ethnic Pen Conference. Poems from Joy Harjo’s “An American Sunrise” were read aloud to the audience. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma as a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, she also spoke of her personal life, including her journey as a writer and artist as well as the history of her indigenous people, the land they come from, and the hardships they faced on the Trail of Tears.

Harjo touched on many topics ranging from modern life during a pandemic, to deeper, more spiritual subjects, such as listening to your intuition and the many ways she found inspiration for her writing. She spoke with a seriousness in her voice, yet told many playful stories. Each word spoken was heavy and solid. Her words touched the hearts and minds of students and teachers alike.

When listening to Harjo, everyone is a student and she is the wise teacher who has lessons on life and its hardships.

“Especially in these times, we have been going through a lot as a people.” said Harjo. She talked about justice and the worldwide need for healing- collectively and individually. She also referred many times to intuition, emphasizing the importance to “pay attention to what your instincts are telling you. Learn to listen, trust the process and most importantly trust yourself.”

Students were allowed a period for questions and answers with Harjo following her delivery of the keynote address. Her responses were humbling.

“Whatever happens, it’s up to you how you respond and take in the stories you’re given every day,” said Harjo. “There is a reason why you came in at this time in the world – so we could lift each other up.”

“Any gift… any power you have is meant to be shared,” she added. “We don’t own our gifts. They do not belong to us. We must share them for the betterment of the people of Earth as a collective. We are not separate from Earth and we are not separate from one another.”

What drives Harjo to spread the power of her words is justice and the need for collective healing, starting on an individual level. Meeting Joy Harjo was an experience like no other. I was enthralled by her aura.