The Proximate Cause storytelling competition is a core feature of BYU LawStories, a school-wide initiative to engage law students with the art and practice of storytelling. Proximate Cause gives BYU Law students an opportunity to practice the skill of short narrative as they share how their law school experiences have enabled them to effect social change through “getting proximate” with individuals and communities.
This year Cate Mumford won judge’s choice award with her piece entitled "Each of Us," her story of survival that eventually led her to an opportunity to work with other survivors in providing legal assistance at a family law firm. Katie Rane won the reader's choice award with "Draw Me a Picture/Hazme un Dibujo," in which she shared her experience of working with asylum seekers being held in immigration detention in South Texas. Because so many of those who shared in her story speak Spanish, Katie wrote and published her story in both English and Spanish.
These are some of the stories of how BYU Law students have discovered and/or acted upon their own proximate causes.
I stood in the tiniest office I’d ever seen. It was oddly shaped, like a trapezoid. A rolltop desk was pressed up against one wall, right next to a window. There wasn’t enough room for all three of us to sit. We had to stand. I crossed my arms, balancing between the wall and the bookshelf.
I stood in the tiniest office I’d ever seen with two other women. All of us were different in so many ways: one from the east, one from the west, one from the south; long hair, short hair, curly hair; blue eyes, brown eyes, and green eyes. One tall. One short. Attorneys and law students. We liked different foods, different clothes, different sports teams. We watched different movies. Yet somehow, we all ended up in this tiny, trapezoidal office at a family law firm. We had only just met, but we shared something. Each of us shared a story.
Each of us had looked into the eyes of a predator and felt true fear. Each of us had been broken, a piece of our souls torn from us in violence. Each of us knew what it meant to be helpless. While the details were different, the result was the same: each one of us had been raped.
Each of us were told the issue was too complicated. It couldn’t have happened the way we said. We needed to be forgiving. We were told to just move on.
Each of us knew what it was to be powerless.
Each of us decided to take our power back in the same way.
Each of us knew if no one would be an advocate for us, then we would do it ourselves. It was going to be a long journey, but each of us had already lived the worst day of our lives. Anything after that would be easy by comparison.
Each of us picked ourselves up. We put the pieces back together. We made ourselves stronger. We went to law school. Although we would take different classes and graduate in different years, each of us went to BYU Law School. We shared our faith. We shared our story.
Three empowered women stood in the tiniest office I’d ever seen. An office in a family law firm where we faced that same tragic story again and again. But this time, we could help; this time there was something we could do about it; this time, maybe we could make a difference.
Three women in the law stood together. We all knew who we were. We all grimaced and giggled when my elbow smacked against the bookshelf. We all knew that the tiny office didn’t matter. The door couldn’t stop our voices from being heard. The walls couldn’t hide our story. Each of us had overcome the worst the world had to offer. Each of us had made ourselves strong. Each of us were exactly where we needed to be.
Border. Wall. Illegal. Separation. How do these words become more real than headlines? Immigrant. Child. Alien. Parent. How do these people become more human than images on a newsfeed? Caravan. Raid. Detention. Deportation. How do these events become closer than distant political affairs?
For me, the answer began in a BYU Law internship in a detention center for immigrant families in Texas where I asked a little girl to draw me a picture—her house, her school, her neighborhood. As she moved her black pen across the white paper, her story came rushing out. “This is where I was standing when she told me she would kill me. This is where my cousin lived. They killed him.” I shivered in the poorly-air-conditioned room and chewed on my lip as panic filled her eyes.
That same tension permeated the air as a woman, clutching her infant to her body, told me of the beating, the confinement, the degradation she’d suffered from a man she’d called her husband. I bit down harder as her storyline unfolded, and her pain became so palpable, so real, that she broke down in uncontrollable sobs. Her baby reached up to touch the tears on her face, and then started to whimper herself. Only after the mother’s shoulders had stopped shaking and her tears had stopped falling, did my jaw begin to relax. As I started breathing again, I realized my own shoulders were trembling.
Before I started law school, I’d heard a BYU Law professor talk about her experiences in Texas and was impressed by her work. I went to Texas because I thought it would be a chance to use my legal skills to forward the cause of justice.
Perhaps I helped balance the system of justice in the detention center, but more than anything, I saw women advocate for justice themselves. One day I interviewed a woman who had left her house through the back door as armed gangs entered through the front. “Did they take possession of your house?” I asked. “No,” she said, and a smile started to form in her eyes. She’d hidden the deed. They could take her home, they could threaten her with death, but even as she fled, she deliberately chose to not support the corruption that was taking over her country.
My campaign to spread justice put me on an airplane and cost a few hot weeks of vacation. Their campaign for justice takes them from their houses, jobs, and loved ones.
Now the words border, wall, illegal, and separation, for me, are connected to stories of people with names, homes, and families. When I see pictures of immigrants, children, aliens, and parents, I see my clients, my acquaintances, my fellow Americans, my friends. When I hear of caravans, raids, detentions, and deportations, I see struggles for justice, courage in the face of brutality, and resilience of the human spirit. I see people with hopes, dreams, and uncertain futures. I see people just like me.
Hazme un Dibujo
Frontera. Muro. Ilegal. Separación. ¿Como es que esas palabras llegan a ser más real que los títulos en los anuncios? Inmigrante. Niño. Extranjero. Padre. ¿Como es que esas personas llegan a ser más humanos que las imágenes en las noticias? Caravana. Redada. Detención. Deportación. ¿Como es que esos eventos llegan a estar más cerca que los asuntos políticos lejanos?
Para mí, la respuesta empezó en un internado de BYU en un centro de detención para las familias inmigrantes en Texas cuando yo le pedí a una niña que me hiciera un dibujo—su casa, su escuela, su barrio. Al mover su lápiz negro sobre la hoja blanca, su historia salió de su boca rápidamente. «Aquí es donde yo estaba parada cuando me dijo que me iba a matar. Allí vivía mi primo. Lo mataron.» Yo sentía escalofríos aunque el aire condicionado no estaba funcionando y comencé a morder mi labio mientras un pánico llenó sus ojos.
La misma tensión se sentía en el aire mientras una mujer, apretando su nene a su cuerpo, me contó de los golpes, el encierro, la degradación que ella sufrió a las manos de un hombre que ella llamaba su esposo. Yo mordía con más fuerza mientras su historia se desarrolló y su dolor llegó a ser tan palpable, tan real, que ella no se aguantó y empezó a llorar con sollozos incontrolables. Su bebé extendió su manita para tocar las lagrimas en su cara y empezó también a gemir. Solamente así fue después de que los hombros de la mamá dejaban de temblar y sus lagrimas dejaron de caer, que mi mandíbula se relajó. Al empezar otra vez a respirar, me di cuenta de que mis propios hombros estaban temblando.
Antes de que comenzara mis estudios en la facultad de derecho, yo había escuchado a una profesora de derecho de BYU hablar sobre sus experiencias en Texas y yo estaba impresionada por su trabajo. Me fui a Texas porque yo pensé que sería una oportunidad de usar mis habilidades legales para adelantar la causa de justicia.
Tal vez sí ayudé a poner en equilibrio el sistema de justicia en el centro de detención, pero más que nada, yo vi a mujeres abogar por justicia por su propia cuenta. Un día entrevisté a una mujer que había huido de su casa por la puerta de atrás mientras mareros armados entraron por la del frente. «¿Tomaron posesión de su casa?» Le pregunté. «No.» Me contestó mientras una sonrisa se empezó a formar en sus ojos. Ella había escondido el título de la propiedad. Podrían ocupar su casa, podrían amenazarle con muerte, pero aún cuando ella iba huyendo, ella escogió con propósito no apoyar a la corrupción que estaba arruinando a su país.
Mi campaña para la justicia me hizo subir un avión y costó unas semanas calorosas de mis vacaciones. La campaña de ellos para la justicia les lleva de sus casas, sus trabajos, y sus seres queridos.
Ahora, las palabras frontera, muro, ilegal, y separación, para mí, están conectadas con historias de personas con nombres, hogares, y familias. Cuando veo imágenes de inmigrantes, niños, extranjeros, y padres, veo a mis clientes, mis conocidos, mis compatriotas americanos, y mis amigos. Cuando escucho de caravanas, redadas, detenciones, y deportaciones, veo una lucha para la justicia, un valor en vista de la brutalidad, y una resistencia del espíritu humano. Veo a personas con deseos, sueños, y dudosos futuros. Veo a personas tal como yo.
My co-worker approached me hand-in-hand with a student. She looked at the little boy and told him to repeat what he had said earlier. I carefully watched as the little boy contorted his lips attempting to make sounds we had practiced repeatedly. When he finished, I told my co-worker, “He wants to play with the cash register.” She nodded and replied, “You’re the only one who can understand him.”
The little boy had autism and was classified as a language-learner. Since he didn’t start speaking until he was six, words stumbled out of his mouth with imprecision. I was the staff member managing his case and spent many hours learning how he formed words. This allowed me to understand nearly everything he was saying. Unfortunately, he attended a poorer school district than many of our other students, and that district provided him less resources. His speech therapist, who he desperately needed, came infrequently. I approached the principal about the matter and was told there was little we could do. I knew a law degree would allow me to properly advocate for children like him.
Fast forward to law school where before you learn to advocate, you learn to decipher the law by sifting through lengthy judicial opinions. As my ability to comprehend dense reading material grew, so did my ability to comprehend complex issues of life and people. Stories of victims and predators intertwined with legal concerns became a daily routine. I began to file the law into my mind and stack the sorrow on my shoulders. Screams of pain exuded from my textbooks. Discussions in class brought visions of a broken and hurting world. This understanding was loud and overwhelming. Some days I would leave class, eyes welling with tears, hands gripping my backpack, trying to hold on for fear the world could cave in at any moment.
However, law school also brought precious moments of conversation with individuals and their distinct pains. These moments were quiet. These moments were sacred. Each moment motivated me to seek more individuals to understand, every story filling the hollow parts of me. For the first time I communed with muslims at their mosque. I served visitors of a LGBT+ resource center and carefully listened to stories of prisoners short distances from their cells. I brainstormed with computer programmers and business students and collaborated on innovated legal technology. I shared heavy hearts with interdisciplinary students as we toured civil rights sites in the South. My circles of different types of people slowly expanded, as did my grasp on the struggles each individual was facing. More important than trying to hear the hurt of the world was trying to understand how the hurt of each individual fits in that world.
In those quiet moments, I realized that there is no advocacy without understanding, even if what is learned is painful. Law school has allowed me to hone my listening skills, preparing me for when I have a client only I can understand.
I clicked the AR-15's release button and the cold weight of the magazine slid into my gloved hand. The tick of my watch pulsed in my ears as I finished disabling the gun and quickly checked that no bullets were in the chamber before placing it back on the shelf of my uncle's closet. Across the room, my aunt looked out the window again. She reminded me that it was getting late, and he got home early on Fridays. I peeled off the gloves, and together we surveyed the room for any signs that I had been there. She insisted we leave no evidence, so I would not be implicated in any crimes that might happen in that room. With a deep, shaky breath, she asked me if I thought we would be breaking the law if we hid the guns, changed the locks to the house, or withdrew money from their shared accounts. Though her face held an expression of practiced calm, she sounded afraid. Afraid not only of what her husband could do to her, but of what the law could do, too. What she needed was legal counsel, but instead, she had only me: a 24-year-old who had yet to take his first law class.
My dynamic with her felt strange that day. I had always been her kid nephew; we used to jump on the trampoline at my grandparents’ house and play with plastic dinosaurs on the hardwood floor on Saturday mornings. Now, my status as an upcoming law student had transformed me into her confidante and advisor. She told me stories of my uncle punching through walls in anger, blocking her exit from doorways, turning friends and family against her, and even implying he would kill her. I had no experience and no legal advice to give, yet I was already being asked to perform as a lawyer and counselor. I suggested she leave town with her girls for the weekend and helped her pack everything in her truck. As I drove ahead of her, my eyes scanned each passing car for my uncle returning home. When I watched her finally turn onto the freeway, I felt myself release a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
I managed to return home without encountering my uncle that day, but violent images of him flooded my dreams later that night. I kicked off the uncomfortably warm sheets and knelt to pray for my aunt and her young daughters. I pleaded that their case might be heard, and that they might be spared the violence that seemed so real a possibility. My aunt’s pain and anxiety were sharp in my mind, and it struck me how affected I had become with someone else’s problems. If this were the burden with which lawyers were tasked, could I really be expected to take on others’ problems as my own for a living? In response the thought came, “What exactly did you think lawyers do?”
(This story is shared anonymously to protect the identities of the persons involved).
My hands trembled as I walked to the front of the room, my stomach in knots. I glanced around, hoping to find someone in charge to help me out, but it was pretty clear that no one was coming. I gripped my desk and clear my throat. “Ok, everyone. I’m so excited to be here,” my voice wavered, “I’m from BYU Law and I am here to talk to you about your rights.”
“I’ll keep you here as long as I have to,” I threatened, though I had no idea if or for how long I could detain a classroom of middle-schoolers. I hid my shaking hands behind my back and stood straighter. “Until that envelope shows up, we’re not leaving.”
“That’s bullshit! We know it was Enrique. Just keep him,” someone yelled as others nodded.
I assumed they were right, but I couldn’t budge. At the beginning of class I collected five dollar donations for our upcoming field trip, but now the money was gone. If I didn’t find that envelope, I would be in so much trouble. Still in my first year of teaching, my position--as a seventh-grade teacher in a state-proclaimed “failing school” in the Bronx--was tenuous at best.
As the bell rang, a stampede of students in the hall echoed inside our silent classroom. Officer Sandy poked her head in during her after school hallway sweep.
“Everything okay here, Miss?”
Before I could answer, someone shouted, “No! Miss won’t let us leave because Enrique stole all the money.”
“That true, Miss?” Officer Sandy asked.
“Yes, but…” Before I could finish, she called on her radio to the other two officers.
“Don’t worry, Miss, we can take it from here.” She walked over to the student spotlit by glares and pointing fingers.
I shrunk into the corner as the other officers lumbered in. They held Enrique by the shoulders as he shouted, his twelve-year-old body fighting to get to the red backpack Sandy was rifling through. When she pulled out a heavy manila envelope from the bag, the other students immediately took that as their cue to leave, talking and yelling as they rushed out, leaving Enrique and me alone with the officers.
An hour later, I looked through the barred third-floor windows and watched as the officers shoved Enrique into the back of the police car. Even with the envelope (and my career) safe, my hands still shook.
My grasp on the desk loosened and the knot in my stomach slowly unraveled. I’d left teaching to go to law school, thinking that within the halls of political power I could better stop the flow of thousands of black and brown boys and girls that runs from American schoolhouses to the jailhouse. Yet here I stood at the front of truancy make-up class full of teenagers who would rather be anywhere else and I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.
“Today, we’re going to talk about search and seizure.”
As my last client of the evening left the small office, I noticed an Asian woman standing in the common area hiding behind her glasses and clutching a stack of papers. I hoped someone had already helped her. The BYU-sponsored legal clinic where I worked that semester closed in fifteen minutes. I was anxious to leave so I could go grocery shopping before heading home to study for finals and work on another client’s green card application. I groaned inwardly when a fellow student poked her head in and asked, “Could you meet with one more person?”
“All right,” I sighed. The timid-looking woman entered and introduced herself as Joy. We sat down across from each other, separated by walls: my long to-do list, impending finals, and my desire to spend time with my young family.
She was trembling. “My daughter and I live here in Provo. We rent part of our house to BYU students to pay the mortgage.” Joy then broke into tears explaining that her current renters, the Howards, had damaged a door, cabinets, and the lights lining the outdoor walkway. They rarely paid rent on time, and at night the wife practiced singing opera, shaking the whole house. They had recently demanded their security deposit and told Joy they would be moving out months before their contract’s end.
My walls crumbled under the weight of the empathy I felt for Joy. I was full of righteous indignation on Joy’s behalf and resentment for the Howards. I was proximate, and this was my cause.
Unfortunately, I soon left for a summer job in Chicago. After giving Joy’s information to the student taking over her case, I thought of the Howards less and less.
Joy’s story sprang back to my memory one Sunday after my return to Provo in August. When my bishop announced the speakers and I recognized the Howards’ names, months-old embers of resentment reignited. Their move into my ward broke down the wall of physical proximity, so I built another wall: I would avoid them. When I later heard opera singing lilting like a leaf blower through the apartment complex, I added a soundproof wall.
A month later, while sitting at my carrel, I received a text from my wife: “We have new ministering assignments.” Curious, I opened the LDS Tools app and saw that I had been reassigned to the Howards. I sat stunned just long enough to remember Joy’s tears, and I topped my walls with razor wire.
I next saw the Howards at church when Brother Howard approached my pew carrying a white tray of torn pieces of bread. I saw the symbols of a man whose suffering brought Him more proximate than I can imagine to more causes than I can fathom, and for whom the walls of a tomb were no barrier. And I knew I could choose my walls or my God. The tray arrived; I reached out and took a soft piece of bread.