Video: Allan Monga reads “The Song of the Smoke” by W.E.B. Du Bois. He is introduced by Jennifer Rooks of Maine Public. Video by Boothbay Region Television and Media Center

Less than a year after coming to Maine to seek asylum from his native Zambia, 19-year-old Deering High School student Allan Monga is suing the National Endowment For the Arts over his right to compete in a national poetry recital contest.

The suit has quickly gained Monga some vocal and public supporters in his quest to spout verse, including Portland’s legislative delegation, city school officials, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and a group of Maine writers that include novelist Richard Russo and Portland poet laureate Gibson Fay-Leblanc.

Monga and the Portland Public Schools are plaintiffs in the suit filed in United States District Court in Portland Wednesday, which is asking a federal judge to overturn the NEA’s decision that Monga can’t compete in the Poetry Out Loud competition in Washington, D.C., on April 23. After Monga won the Maine state version of Poetry Out Loud, to earn a spot in the nationals, he was told he could not go to Washington D.C. because he was not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, according to court documents.

The suit is asking for a preliminary injunction to stop the NEA from barring Monga from the competition. Not allowing him to participate would violate his rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments to the constitution, the suit claims. Both have clauses outlining people’s rights to due process of the law. A phone conference with Judge John A. Woodcock and lawyers from both sides is scheduled for 1 p.m. Friday.

At a Thursday afternoon press conference in the office of Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum, Monga talked about his passion for reciting poetry, something he only discovered after coming to America and with help from teachers at Deering. When asked by a reporter to recite a little bit of a poem, he thought for a minute and announced he would recite “”She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron. It was one of three poems he recited to win the state Poetry Out Loud contest March 20.

Monga was wearing a purple and white jacket (Deering colors) that had “Deering High School State Champion Poetry Out Loud” written it. He talked about how much he wanted to compete in the national contest and about how grateful he was to America for “giving me this opportunity.”

“I don’t want to stir up trouble, I just want to be able to go to (the national contest) just like any other kid from any other state,” Monga said.

Although one key component of the suit is Monga’s status as an asylum seeker, he would not answer any questions about why or how he left Zambia or what he is seeking asylum from. One of his lawyers, Melissa Hewey, said Monga would rather focus on the contest and the suit than discuss his past. The firm is handling Monga’s case at no cost, Hewey said.

Allan Monga, 19, a Deering High junior and an asylum seeker from Zambia, won local- and state-level competitions in the Poetry Out Loud program. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

In a declaration filed with the suit, Monga stated that he fled Zambia in 2017 and traveled alone to New York, where he spent the night in an airport, then flew on to Portland. He said he lived for while last summer at the Preble Street Teen Center in Portland. He lives in Westbrook and is now a junior at Deering, in Portland.

The declaration states that Monga has applied for asylum with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and has an Employment Authorization Card and a social security number. Once he recieves asylum, he hopes to apply to be a permanent resident.

While he is not a citizen or a permanent resident, Monga does have the right to bring a case to a federal court and have it heard, said James Burke, a clinical professor of law at the University of Maine Law School.

Anyone, including asylum seekers and refugees, is entitled to equal protection under the law and due process in the courts, said Zach Heiden, legal director of the Maine branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said there may be precedent for the case, since courts in the past have ruled that schools are not allowed to discriminate against immigrants and deny them opportunities other students have.

Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said that’s the main reason the Portland schools joined the suit on Monga’s behalf.

“We have a great interest in making sure he has this opportunity, to show the world what he can do,” said Botana.

Monga was allowed to compete in the state version of Poetry Out Loud because the Maine Arts Commission – organizer of the state’s Poetry Out Loud contest – decided to allow him despite contest rules, Hewey said. After becoming a regional finalist and earning a spot in the state finals, Monga was told he could not compete further. But Botana and other school officials contacted the Maine Arts Commission on his behalf, and he was allowed to participate.

Julie A. Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission said it is the commission’s policy not to comment on pending litigation. The commission is named in the suit as a party-in-interest, but not as a defendant. The defendants include the NEA, its chair Jane Chu and The Poetry Foundation. The NEA would not comment on the suit, said Elizabeth Auclair, a spokesperson for the organization.

Monga said he has “always loved” poetry but never recited any before starting at Deering and finding out about the Poetry Out Load contest from teachers. He said that when he recites a poem he loves trying to imagine what a poet was thinking when he or she wrote it.

He found out about Poetry Out Loud last fall and entered a Deering competition in December. He won and then started getting ready for the regional competition.

Monga said he practiced reciting poems daily, arriving at school around 7:20 a.m. to practice and work with his English teacher on pronunciation, gestures and understanding the meaning of the poems. He also practiced with his school’s drama teacher.

“I have fallen in love with Poetry Out Loud and it’s my heart’s desire to perform,” Monga said in his declaration. “I believe in Poetry Out Loud and the platform it gives students to express themselves through the words of others.”

To win the state Poetry Out Loud he recited three poems: “In The Desert” by Stephen Crane; ; and “The Song of The Smoke” by W.E.B. DuBois.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) sent a letter Thursday to the NEA, and to the media, asking the agency to reconsider its decision. Pingree is a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, which has oversight of discretionary funding at the NEA. She said in her letter she could see no “statutory” grounds why Monga, a student in “good standing” at Deering, should be denied access to the competition.

In a written statement sent to the Press Herald, Pingree said that the NEA “is all about supporting artistic expression from diverse voices and capturing different aspects of the American experience.”

Other public letters of support written on Monga’s behalf include one to the community from six members of Portland’s legislative delegation and one to the NEA from more than 30 Maine writers and poets.

“We just can’t think of any justification anyone in the arts world would have for not letting him compete,” said Fay-LeBlanc, Portland’s poet laureate.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: RayRouthier

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