Velvet Rodriguez-Poston: The Artist of Law
By Merrilee Buchanan
Photographs by Carol Storey
Carol Storey and I interviewed Velvet Poston-Rodriguez for our first Aluminaria feature on inspiring women who are taking risks and being bold for change. #BeBoldforChange
We rode the elevator to the 7th floor of the McIntyre building in downtown Salt Lake City. It was not the typical law office I had expected. Rows of teardrop-shaped glass crystals hung from the ceiling in the lobby and all the way down the main hallway. The walls were colored in deep rust-red, and a bright, brush-stroke painting greeted us at the entry.
“Did I tell you that Velvet bought the whole 7th floor?” Carol whispered as we took in our new surroundings.
Honestly, I had not known what to expect when meeting Velvet Rodriguez-Poston. Velvet is a partner in Rodriguez-Poston & Fackrell PLLC Mediation Services in Salt Lake City, Utah. Carol had set up this meeting, with little more to say than, “I can’t fully describe her, except that she’s one of the coolest people I know.” And, “You will love her. She’s exactly the person we want for our first story.”
I recognized Velvet instantly in the group of women chatting near the reception desk. At least I had done my homework and stalked her website and LinkedIn page so I would have some thoughtful questions. She walked over and met us with a life-sized smile and a warm hug, even though this was my first meeting with her. She and Carol are long-time friends.
There might not be a more suitable name for this woman greeting us than “Velvet”. Her graceful presence is smooth and soft like the fabric that bears her name, and her personal style is modern and elegant. Simply put, she glows. Her long dark hair tucks behind one ear and falls casually to her shoulder, and her eyes shine with radiance and her lips with perhaps newly-applied gloss. There is nothing formal about her, but she exudes a warm, welcoming professionalism that instantly makes you trust her, and a familiarity that suggests you might have grown up together.
“Would you like a tour?” she asks before we start our interview. Carol and I practically stumble over each other with exuberance to see each room and absorb every detail. We follow her into the glass-lit hallway as she opens every door and provides a brief explanation of the room’s purpose. The first conference room is painted in a rich plum color. A round conference table sits in the center beneath a sparkly chandelier. It’s surrounded by white leather swivel chairs.
“We call this room “Vegas”, Velvet says. “Every room has a name and a character.”
This is clearly not a traditional law office with wood-paneled credenzas, over-stuffed leather chairs and framed diplomas reminding you of the formality of your business there. Originally built in 1909, this building’s 7th floor is filled with personality and color. Art is everywhere: Each door has a unique, delicate, stained-glass insert. Velvet shyly admits she made all of them.
“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.
“And I remember at that moment I thought to myself, “I’m going to make it. You watch me. You may not believe in me, but I’m going to do this thing. The way I’m going to get it done is by studying really hard and applying myself. So that’s what I did. Isn’t that funny? That was like my pinnacle, where I thought, “Oh, no, you don’t get to tell me anymore what I can and cannot do. I get to decide what I do, even if everything is stacked against me. I don’t care.”
Velvet has carried that determination into every part of her life, and carving out a niche for mediation services in a traditional law environment has not come without setbacks. I asked her how she deals with challenges and pressures, both as a professional and as a mother.
“I get a lot of pressure and criticism from the law community,” she said. “People are uncomfortable with change, and have a hard time accepting things that are different from what they know. I understand it, but some people have said some really hurtful things. ‘Go over and see Velvet’, I’ve heard they’ve said, and ‘she’ll charge you while she paints.’”
“Sometimes I break because it gets so hard,” she continued. “I cry a little, then I recover and move on. I’m not going to let other people’s opinions ruin my life. I decided that in the 9th grade.”
With parenting, Velvet said that she built her career to be inclusive of her children. Her daughters, now 17, 14, and 11, are regulars in the office, when they’re not tied up with their own individual pursuits. She remarked that they had all worked together painting, cleaning and remodeling the offices before they moved in, and they provide her with frequent feedback and advice.
“When I’m preparing for a talk or a training, I always sit them down and practice in front of them, and they are my biggest fans and critics. I want my communication to be understood by a broad audience, and they tell me things like, ‘Don’t say it that way, Mom, or use this word instead of that one.’ It’s really valuable to me.”
She and her husband, Scott, are raising their daughters with the same kind of support and high-expectations that her parents provided her.
“My parents definitely were a source of strength for me. It wasn’t an option for them for me not to succeed. It was never an option to not go to college, or not be a doctor or a lawyer. They had given me two choices—lawyer or doctor, and I honestly thought those were my only two choices on earth. I had no idea I could choose anything else.”
Though they are not prescribing their daughters’ career paths, they are intentionally shaping them to be strong, independent women. Velvet said she keeps a note on the bathroom mirror that says, “You are beautiful, you are smart, and if you work hard enough, you can do anything you want.” Her girls have repeated this mantra daily since they were toddlers, and she feels it’s paying off. “We have this opportunity to raise a generation of young people who think differently, who see their own capabilities, and it’s normal for them. This is the stuff that will change the future.”
When I asked Velvet what advice or wisdom she would like to share with regard to International Women’s Day’s 2017 theme: #BeBoldforChange, she didn’t hesitate.
“We have to start with being bold for ourselves. We as women are often brought up to serve others and take care of other people’s needs first. But we can’t be bold out in the world if we’re not bold with ourselves, and that often means setting limits, saying no, and not trying to keep everyone else happy all the time.”
“Be bold. Be colorful. Be yourself. That’s what I would say,” she concluded.
Velvet walked us to the elevator as we absorbed the last details of her story and Carol clicked her shutter a few more times.
“Funny story”, she said. “Just to make your day.” Velvet then described the process she went through when she decided to buy the 7th floor of the McIntyre Building.
“I heard it was on the market, so I made arrangements with the agent to come see it. I was dressed a little more casually that day, so when I arrived to meet him, he looked at me with that up-and-down once-over, and said, ‘You can get the key from someone on the 3rd floor.’”
“I’m sure what he saw was a young, Hispanic woman who obviously couldn’t afford the property, so it wasn’t even worth his time to show it. I got the key and showed myself around.”
“I was really interested,” she said, “but I had to do all my own research to get the information I needed, and I learned that his listing was expiring in a week. I waited it out until a new agent had listed it, won a short bidding war, and it was mine.”
“But here’s the best part,” Velvet continued. “A few months later, I ran into this agent at a fundraiser, but I was dressed up and he obviously didn’t recognize me. He approached me and introduced himself and started to hand me his card.”
“’Actually, we have met,’ I told him, and he looked puzzled. I said, ‘I came to look at the property and you refused to take the time to show it to me. Then your listing expired and I put in an offer, and the 7th floor is ours now. But it’s great to meet you again anyway.’”
“You should have seen his face,” she said. “He put his card back in his pocket and excused himself.”
“You can always count on Karma Bitch."
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