Deering High’s Allan Monga says he’s “beyond happy” that other non-citizens can compete in Poetry Out Loud. Staff file photo by Ben McCanna

The National Endowment for the Arts is widening the eligibility rules for a poetry recital contest after a high-profile lawsuit brought by a Portland high school student.

Allan Monga, a student at Deering High School from Zambia who is seeking asylum, won Maine’s Poetry Out Loud competition in March and then told he was not allowed to compete at the nationals because he was not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

Monga and the Portland Public Schools then sued the NEA, saying Monga’s right to a public education was being violated. A federal judge allowed Monga to participate in the national competition in Washington, D.C., but did not rule on whether the NEA’s eligibility requirements should stand.

On July 31, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter to the lawyer representing Monga and Portland schools, Melissa Hewey, saying the contest’s citizenship requirement was being eliminated by the NEA. The NEA will no longer require students to have a valid tax identification number or a Social Security number. The contest’s prior rules about citizenship and residency will be replaced with a short paragraph that reads: “No student may be excluded from participating in Poetry Out Loud on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, disability or national origin.”

The letter from the Department of Justice, sent on behalf of the NEA, was released Tuesday by Portland Public Schools. Hewey said in a statement released by the school department that having the NEA eliminate the citizenship requirement was a main goal of the lawsuit.

Monga also released a statement on the NEA rule change, thanking Hewey and other lawyers at the Portland firm Drummond Woodsum, as well as teachers, administrators and classmates who supported his fight and the lawsuit.

Allan Monga, a Deering High School student from Zambia, performs in a Poetry Out Loud competition. Image from video

“My first intention was to have the opportunity to compete. But, as the suit progressed, I understood that I needed to persevere so that others would not have to fight for that right,” Monga said in the statement. “I am beyond happy at this result.”

Xavier Botana, superintendent of Portland Public Schools, said the district joined Monga’s lawsuit because officials felt strongly that he should have the same opportunity as other students.

“Thanks to Allan Monga’s courage and determination to follow his dream, immigrant students across the nation now have the chance to follow in his footsteps,” Botana said in a school department news release.

Monga flew alone from Zambia to Maine in 2017 and spent some time living at the Preble Street Teen Center. Because asylum cases are confidential due to potential harm to family and friends left behind, Monga and his lawyers have not discussed the reasons why he left Zambia.

Soon after starting at Deering High last fall, he was told about Poetry Out Loud and started practicing his recitals. He soon found a passion for it. He won a school competition – as a 19-year-old junior – and then the state competition. After the lawsuit was filed on his behalf, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock granted a temporary restraining order so Monga could attend the national competition representing Maine in Washington in April.

On stage in Washington, Monga recited “The Song of the Smoke” by W.E.B. Du Bois and the love poem “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron. Despite powerful presentations, he did not make it past the opening round. Afterward, when asked if he would try to compete in the national Poetry Out Loud next year, Monga said he’d rather that another Deering student get the chance instead.

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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Twitter: @RayRouthier