The arts are meant to expand views and push boundaries. Poetry, theater and other forms of self-expression serve their purpose when they raise up voices that otherwise would never have been heard.
The National Endowment for the Arts says it supports the concept of the arts as an equalizer, stating prominently on its website that it “affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts.”
So it didn’t make sense for the NEA to prevent Allan Monga, 17, of Westbrook from advancing to a national poetry competition because of his immigration status after he won the Poetry Out Loud contest in Maine.
After fleeing Zambia last year, Monga, a junior at Deering High School, applied for asylum. Though he can work in this country, and has a Social Security card, he was blocked from reciting a poem on a national stage, per the federally funded organization’s rules. The winner of the poetry competition receives $20,000.
Monga and his school district sued, arguing that the NEA violated the equal protection clause of the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin in activities receiving federal financial assistance. The act protects Monga’s right to an equal education.
The argument against granting Monga equal access to the competition was faulty. The assistant attorney general arguing on behalf of the NEA said it was “in the national interest to give the limited resources of the country to permanent legal residents and U.S. citizens.”
But those so-called limited resources were already allocated. It’s not as if Monga would cost the NEA more than it was already going to spend. Rather, it was, in effect, making a judgment about one group of people being valued less than another.
And the NEA’s case didn’t align with the realities of immigration law. Asylum seekers, who are afraid to return to their home country, can only apply for a green card after they’ve physically been in the United States for one year. In effect, Monga was not preventing himself from being eligible; the federal government was.
What’s more, the NEA’s decision flew in the face of what the arts stand for. If anything, the NEA should be showcasing the work of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers if it wishes to broaden people’s views and uphold its mission of equal access to the arts.
Thankfully, U.S. District Judge John Woodcock corrected the problem, deciding Friday to allow Monga to compete, while the judge reviews the larger issues the case has raised.
We wish Monga all the best at the national finals this week — semifinals begin Tuesday in Washington, D.C. — and know he’ll make Maine proud. He already has, in many ways, not just by showcasing his talent but by fighting for what is right.
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