“You’ll see I’m passionate about art,” she said. “I could give up my law practice in a heartbeat and just be an artist full time. But I don’t have to. See?”
At this point, she opens a door to a full-blown art studio, stocked with racks of oil paints, brushes, chalk, and all manner of art supplies. Several canvases lean against the wall with early suggestions of what they may become.
I hear Carol gasp audibly in disbelief.
“I know, right? Isn’t it great?” Velvet quips with a hint of sass.
“This is my work/life balance, right here in this little room.” She holds up a painting while Carol snaps a few pictures. “When my girls come to my office, this is where they hang out. My daughter did this little painting right here,” she says while gesturing toward the wall on my left. Her face wears a proud parent smile.
“Sometimes I have a little down time while my clients are filling out paperwork, or deliberating on their options. Five minutes here, ten minutes there. It’s just enough time for me to come in here and throw a few strokes of paint on the canvas. It helps me focus, and re-set my energy, especially if we’re working through something that’s really tough or stressful. I want to be fully present with my clients, and when I come out of this room, I’m calmer, and my thinking is clearer.”
The number of different rooms seems endless. There are now nine mediators, including Velvet’s husband, Scott, working in her practice. The practice grows by word of mouth only; aside from doing speaking engagements, providing training classes, and supporting a myriad of community causes with fund-raising, their firm does no formal advertising.
“I decided early in my career that traditional law was not going to be an option for me. It seemed like it existed in a very small box. And it’s not my personality to be super aggressive if I don’t have to be. So I was in my 2nd year of law school, and my professor started a community mediation center, and she said, ‘Who wants to be in charge?’ I didn’t even know what mediation was, and I raised my hand because I didn’t know the difference.”
At last, Velvet leads us to a semi-hidden room around a corner. It has light blue-green walls, a bright window, and a wide, black velvet tufted Cleopatra sofa, adorned with two gold lamé pillows.
I laugh out loud in surprise. I’ve never seen anything like this—in a law office or any kind of office, for that matter. Carol, however, signals me to turn around, and I see her sitting in a full massage chair, tucked in a small alcove.
“This is where we bring people when they’re really stressed out or upset,” Velvet said. “Or when we are, of course,” she adds playfully. The room is unquestionably soothing and calming. I could imagine myself as a cat curled up in a sunbeam on the sofa on a sleepy Friday afternoon.
In spite of their differences, I noticed something consistent in each of the rooms: a large bowl of packaged snacks perched on a corner table. Granola bars, chips, cookies, crackers, popcorn, and nuts were plentiful. Velvet explained, “People come to mediation, and sometimes they’re here for a long time. When we’re under so much stress, sometimes we forget to take care of our own basic needs, and if you get really hungry and your blood sugar drops, you can’t think clearly or make good decisions. So we anticipate that and try to take good care of people with snacks and drinks. It’s just being human, I guess.”
We returned to the Vegas room for the interview.
“I am a political refugee from Guatemala,” Velvet began.
“My parents were chased out of the country essentially because my dad was a big part of the civil rights movement in the 1980s when Guatemala was going through a civil war. There were hundreds of thousands of deaths and people escaping the country. We were on the no-fly list and the no-travel list on all the borders. So we had to actually sneak into Mexico, and then seek political asylum in the United States.”
It was again not the story I was expecting. It was hard to imagine this woman in a position of oppression of any kind, given all that we had just seen in the expressed freedom of the artful office décor.
Velvet went on to describe how the family had arrived in Utah. When she was 8 years old and crossing borders with her parents as refugees, her uncle provided one name of a person with whom he had served an LDS mission some years before.
“So when we arrived in Salt Lake,” she said, “we just had this name. My parents looked up the name in the phone book, and called up—cold call—and said, “Hey, I think my brother served a mission with your son.” Bless these people’s hearts, we didn’t have anything with us…just a tiny little suitcase, and they said, ‘We’ll be right there.’ They came to greet us with leis, and welcome signs, and it was really something.”
Velvet grew up in Provo, Utah, and said it was not an easy time to be Hispanic or an immigrant, as there were not many people who understood either her plight or her aspirations. She spoke no English when she arrived in the US with her parents. Her first language had been a Guatemalan indigenous dialect because she was raised by a nanny while her parents worked. Her second language was Spanish, and she had attended a private German school. She said she thought English sounded a little like German, and picked up the language in a short time, becoming the interpreter and translator for her parents and relatives who arrived later.
She remembers vividly an encounter with her academic counselor when she was in the 9th grade. “As she led me into the office, I said, “What classes will I have to take to go to a good university?”
“I will never forget what she said: ‘Your people should concentrate on graduating from high school, not on going to universities. Statistically, you’ll never make it to a university. You’ll only hopefully graduate from high school.”
Velvet continued. “But I know I can make it to university, so what classes do I have to take?” And she said, ‘Well, you would have to take honors classes, but I actually dropped all of your honors classes because I don’t think you can handle it.’ That was with a 4.0 GPA.”
She pauses with a chuckle, and takes a deep breath in the way you might before climbing a long flight of stairs.