Equity & Diversity

African Student Wins Fight to Compete in National Poetry Contest

By Catherine Gewertz — April 23, 2018 2 min read
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A Zambian student living in Maine has won the right to compete in a national poetry competition. The federal-government-funded contest had barred him from the final round because its rules require contestants to be legal residents or citizens.

Federal Judge John Woodcock, of the U.S. District Court in Portland, ruled Friday that Allan Monga can compete in this week’s national Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington, D.C., according to a report by the Associated Press. The competition, April 24-25, will be webcast live.

Monga, a 17-year-old junior at Deering High School in Portland, left his native Zambia last year to seek asylum in the United States. Monga won Maine’s Poetry Out Loud competition, even though the rules of the National Endowment for the Arts, which sponsors the program, require contestants in the state and national rounds to be citizens or permanent residents.

The federal agency said valid social security or tax identification numbers are needed to receive the prize money attached to the final rounds of competition. Maine Public Radio reported that Monga has a social security number, but doesn’t yet have a green card.

When the National Endowment for the Arts barred Monga from competing in the national finals in Washington, D.C., he and the Portland school district filed a lawsuit arguing the agency was denying him guarantees to equal education outlined in the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act. Judge Woodcock ruled in his favor late Friday afternoon.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana said the school community is “ecstatic” that Monga will be able to participate in the national contest, according to the AP.

Unlike “slam” poetry contests, where students perform original compositions, Poetry Out Loud requires students to memorize and perform work by other poets. Students compete to win their school titles, then proceed to regional and state competitions. State champions participate in the finals in Washington. (Education Weekprofiled Poetry Out Loud at one school earlier this year.)

At a hearing last Wednesday, Judge Woodcock asked an NEA attorney to explain why it’s “in the national interest” to bar “someone like Mr. Monga” from participating in the national finals.

“It’s in the national interest to give the limited resources of the country to permanent legal residents and U.S. citizens,” Assistant Attorney General Rachael Westmoreland told the judge, according to the Bangor Daily News. She also said the rules were based on qualifications Congress set for winners of the National Medal for the Arts, the newspaper reported.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.