Oregon State Bar Bulletin — NOVEMBER 2010
Culture of Awareness
The Former "Newcomer"
Polo Catalani Shares His Experience of Life in a New Culture to Help Others

By Melody Finnemore

Ronault “Polo” L.S. Catalani easily empathizes with the physical and emotional upheaval many immigrants face as they resettle in Oregon.

Catalani’s family was expelled from Indonesia and lived in the Netherlands before resettling in Salem during the 1960s. The second oldest of four sons, Catalani was in junior high at the time.

Middle and high school are rarely easy for anyone to endure, but Catalani’s experience was particularly painful. He remembers being bullied relentlessly, both verbally and physically, by white kids who zeroed in on his small stature and brown skin.

Catalani was able to go to the University of Oregon on a sports scholarship. At the U.O., Catalani met James Chowning Davies, a political science professor. Chowning became Catalani’s mentor and introduced him to the study of human migrations.

“He gave me an intellectual narrative for what had happened to our family. Getting me to that elevated level of understanding was really important for me because it enabled me to move beyond a child’s perspective of my terror and our parents’ silence over what happened back then,” Catalani says.

While at the U.O., Catalani met OSB Affirmative Action Director Angel Lopez, now a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge, and Lopez persuaded him to go to law school. The Anglo-American legal system was completely baffling to Catalani. However, after witnessing how similar Southeast Asian refugee resettlement was to his family’s trauma, he knew it was his responsibility to use the law to protect Oregon’s newest and most vulnerable communities.

He graduated from Willamette University College of Law in 1983 and, that year, Howard University named him a Reginald Heber Smith Community Law Fellow. In ’84, Catalani became a fellow of the Human Rights Academy at the International Court of Justice. Although claimants, former slave-laborers (like his father and uncles) did not get the official Japanese apology they were seeking for 1941-45 crimes against humanity, the survivors did secure a small stipend and medical coverage for the rest of their lives.

Catalani was for 20 years the managing attorney of Community Legal Services, an immigrant and ethnic minority community practice based in Oregon and Wisconsin, in addition to being a political asylum practice out of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

Now head of the city of Portland’s New Portlanders programs, Catalani’s current work is “integrating new Americans into the social, economic and cultural life of the city” — which of course includes Oregon’s legal system.

He says a big part of his work remains insulating newcomer families from the mainstream until they can get their bearings, avoiding mainstream problem-solving systems they often don’t understand and that will leave immigrant families more disoriented and disintegrated and ultimately dependent on the mainstream systems.

“Each of our energetic newcomer communities has great thinkers and problem-solvers; they know how to fix their folk’s broken parts,” Catalani says. “We come from cultures that don’t depend on government to settle our issues. The real issue for Oregon courts and lawyers is how we can remain relevant to our public, given our dramatic demographic and ethno-cultural shifts. We risk not only general alienation, but the popular erosion of respect for our legal system.

“Oregon’s legal system is supposed to maintain a monopoly on problem-solving, and maybe that’s okay because our institutions set a standard for behavior and consequences,” he adds. “But the trouble is these standards are not perceived as inclusive among ethnic minority Oregonians, and they’re not working so well for many white folks either. With this much alienation, you have to ask: why are we doing it this way?”

Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. 

© 2010 Melody Finnemore

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