Empowering Communities: One Man’s Legacy in Community Lawyering


Empowering Communities: One Man’s Legacy in Community Lawyering

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Ronault L.S. Catalani, community lawyer, is well-known among his beloved Oregon’s ethnic enclaves as an advocate for families. Polo – as he is best known among readers of his long-running opinion column in The Asian Reporter – is at his best when he is empowering ethnic communities to draw from the wisdom of traditional cultural values in solving community problems.

His work in bringing to light the gaps that exist between services offered by mainstream institutions and the needs of immigrant and communities of color has yielded a fulfilling career for Polo.

“When I do law, I’m just the mechanic. Community lawyering is based on assumption that ethnic enclaves can solve their own problems. I can tell the elders in the community how we’re going to approach the problem within the parameters of law – but I always engage and empower the elder auntie or elder uncle with the respect and responsibility to solve the problem.”

Polo received his J.D. from Willamette University and was a Reginald Heber Smith Community Law Fellow at Howard University Law School. For more than two decades, Polo has been working alongside immigrant and refugee communities, focused on preserving families, cultural traditions and integrity.

In Oregon, Polo is well-known as a leading Asian-American “uncle,” working alongside community groups such as the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon; the Vietnamese Association Confederation; the Hmong American Unity of Oregon; Cambodian American Citizens Organization; Sailud Lao Organization of Oregon; and the Southeast Asian Refugee Federation of Oregon. His asylum work also has taken him across the United States, and to Thailand and Vietnam.

Community lawyering works because it is respectful and dignified. As Polo says, “Our work starts with asking Asian, islander, and Muslim community moral authorities what their families need to preserve cultural integrity and maintain social harmony. Take care of these basics, economic self-sufficiency will follow. Problems are approached by building community (common cause) around an issue. Around problem-solving. This affirms traditional cultural values and acknowledges local leadership.”

Polo’s passion for preserving families, communities and cultural traditions among ethnic enclaves stems from his boyhood experiences as a twice-émigré. During the tumultuous 1960s in his native Indonesia, Polo’s family boarded a steamer to Papua New Guinea, then headed for the Netherlands soon after. At age 7, Polo – who is mixed race Catalan and Manado – knew what it meant to be “stateless.” The Dutch government never allowed his family and other Indonesians to settle as refugees in the Netherlands.

“The whole colonial scheme of Europe was falling apart. France, Brittania, Belgium – all were suffering because of the decolonization of the former possessions. Holland was bankrupt. As mestizos, we were the children of their indiscretion,” he said. “We were not welcome – we were in our freighter for more than a month. They wouldn’t let us off the ship. The United Nations intervened, and they allowed us to lived in the international zone. In warehouses.”

For several years, Polo and his siblings lived on the margins of Dutch society, fully understanding their place in the apartheid colonial scheme. “In apartheid, people were sorted by darkies, coloreds and whites. My father’s grandparents are Catalan, so as a ‘colored,’ we had a certain role in The Netherlands. We were higher than darkies. They called us Indos.

“I’m sure there are days when things are fine, but all of my memories are about schoolboys pinning us to the asphalt, standing on our arms and shoulders with their feet, then making foam spit. Bubbling foam and dropping it on our faces.”

In time, the family gained refugee status to finally settle in the United States. Polo’s family made their home in Salem. “In school, I was called ‘shrimp spick’ – I didn’t know what spick was. I knew that shrimp meant small, but for the longest time, I didn’t know that spic meant ‘Mexican,’” he said.

While his mother worked at a cannery, his father worked as a janitor at JC Penneys. “Immigrants are practical people. We do what we must.”

poloWhile attending the University of Oregon, Polo learned how to be adaptable in an environment much different from what he was used to.

Despite living in poverty throughout high school, Polo earned an athletic scholarship to attend the University of Oregon. His academic potential notwithstanding, Polo doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that he is the product of the affirmative action push among institutions of higher education.

“Oregon was under a desegregation order to integrate higher education. We were part of a cohort – about 500 people of color, about 100 graduated from that group. Two dozen went on to graduate or professional degrees,” he said. “The Educational Opportunities Program worked on giving us skills on how to study, how to take tests, make us feel welcome. University was very different from what any of us were used to. We were used to being with our families, in our barrios, then all of a sudden, we were in this wide, white world. We had to get used to it, so we depended on each other a lot.”

Polo’s natural curiosity and obvious writing and research talents caught the attention of Professor Emeritus James Davies, whose research focused on political revolution and community development. He took Polo under his wing, to engage in community work as a research assistant. Aiding Davies in his research, Polo spent a lot of time during his undergrad years doing “field work” in Greece, Turkey, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Thailand.

“I was doing research on resettled people and migration as a result of civil wars. Those experiences have impacted what I’ve been doing with immigrant enclaves.”

After college, Polo started working as a social worker for a child services agency in Coos Bay. “My work was around caring for neglected and abused children. When I showed up, I worked with Mexicans, Indians, Fijians and Japanese families. I became the brown boy down there, and every brown person was sent to me. We saw our problems different than white folks do.”

“And it was really scary for me. We solved problems as a family. If the woman was beating her baby – that’s because she’s angry, frustrated and mad at her man. So we get everybody to pay attention to what’s going on. Or, if the man is frustrated and humiliated and beating on his woman and beating on his kids, then putting him in prison is stupid and a waste of money. We all get on his case – uncles and cousins police him, and we go out and find him a better job.”

Polo’s early successes in social work established a solid foundation for his subsequent successes and effectiveness at community lawyering. “I’m not good at being a cop. It wasn’t me. If you allow us to be true to our ethnicity, we’re going to do something different, and if you trust us, we’re all going to get better.”

poloWhen Polo decided to go back to school to study law, he had his work cut out for him. He said he wouldn’t have been able to do it without the help of his mother, who took care of his three young children while he attended classes and worked two jobs.

Earning his law degree gave Polo more than a license to take his advocacy work up a notch – it also gave him the authority to organize ethnic communities toward a common cause. “For the first time in my life, I wasn’t a victim anymore. Getting beat up at school, getting kicked out of countries, living in a ship until it stunk: all that helplessness was gone.”

Polo drew attention to a number of cases involving children of Asian émigrés who were being taken away from their families due to alleged abuse and neglect. In many cases, children were removed from their homes without due process and insufficient proof of harm and wrongdoing. Children removed from their families were placed in mainstream foster families, often causing cultural and linguistic isolation.

Advocating for families and children, Polo sought to work alongside “uncles and aunties in the communities” to draft the Oregon Refugee Child Act, which is modeled after national Indian Child Welfare Act. “This is what we fought for: if a child is removed from her family, she has to be placed with another family of the same ethnic and language community.

“It was really simple: don’t you want a Jewish child placed in a Jewish family? Shouldn’t a Catholic kid continue to go to Catholic church? Shouldn’t a Hmong child continue to live with Hmong uncles and aunties?”

The coalition’s efforts were met with much resistance, and yielded some of the most unexpected alliances. “We were doing community-up, instead of establishment-down. The ACLU was against us. The Catholic and Lutheran churches were against us,” he said. “Surprisingly, the right-wing Republican family values crowd was supporting us.

The country people knew what we were talking about, that we don’t want the government in our homes. They understood that it’s all about family, discipline and religion.”

When the law passed in 1985, the challenge of implementing the letter of the law also posed a challenge. “Up and down the line, we were talking teachers, social workers, lawyers, judges. Getting them to trust people who don’t look like them, don’t talk like them, don’t feel like they feel was very, very difficult,” he said.

After many court battles, the law was overturned, but not without a lasting legacy in how child welfare cases are handled by the state.“We were able to change policy and practice on agency end, so that consideration of a child’s ethnicity, race, religion, language – these all had to be part of good social work.”

Polo has accomplished much in the realm of community lawyering and empowering communities, but he’s not yet ready to rest on his laurels. “We’re part of the solution. That’s how we solve most of our problems. Most of our problems are with each other, and we need to live with each other after it’s all over.”

This article originally appeared on www.colorsofinfluence.com. Colors of Influence is a quarterly online magazine highlighting the accomplishments of business and civic leaders of color in the Northwest.

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