Speak: The story of a mom turned lawyer turned community leader


Conviction is the secret to success — at least that is what Provo City Council member Laura Canbanilla has found.

Provo City Council member, Laura Cabanilla, poses in her office at Esplin & Wight Attornies at Law in downtown Provo. (Photo by Daniella Subieta)
Provo City Council member, Laura Cabanilla, poses in her office at Esplin & Wight Attornies at Law in downtown Provo. (Photo by Daniella Subieta)

Cabanilla, an attorney with Esplin and Weight and second-term council member, is an assertive community leader, thanks to her innate tenacity as well as a military career.

Cabanilla said her time in the ROTC, Army Reserve, and then service in Kuwait as a lieutenant colonel in 2011, have trained her to speak up. That wasn’t always the case though. Cabanilla said that as a teenager her timidity kept her almost invisible.

“I was so shy in high school that I could barely speak to anyone. …  I think it’s probably the military (that) kind of drilled it out of me when I was 19 or 20,” she said. “In the ROTC, you had to get up in front of the platoon and you had to direct them … so being in front of them all the time helps you get over that.”

Cabanilla is definitely not shy, despite her soft-spoken nature. As the council chair from 2009-2012 and council member representing Provo City-wide District I, her vocal contribution to policy decisions and concern for the community are constantly manifest. Even her treatment of rude or belligerent citizens that make inappropriate public comments during council meetings shows her gentle confidence.

Cabanilla said a man comes to council meetings once a year to rant about homosexuals. Usually, the chair lets the speaker go on, but Cabanilla said that when she was chair, she couldn’t.

“When he got up, I just thought … it was so offensive, (because) he gets even kind of graphic, so I just said, ‘You are offensive, sir, and I’m not going to allow you to speak anymore,’ and he was so shocked,” she said.

The man came back once more to share his unfavorable and offensive views of U.S. senators from Utah. Again, Cabanilla refused to let him speak, and he hasn’t been back since.

With this mettle, Cabanilla did the job of a colonel when serving as a lieutenant colonel over logistics with contracting in Kuwait. The task, she said, was “very demanding. … It took a lot of dealing with all kinds of different problems and trying to fix problems. I gave briefings almost daily to two- and three-star generals.”

The calm, confident poise with which Cabanilla carries herself allowed her to do this job with grace.

Once, Cabanilla said, a full colonel “was upset over something that he was told to do that he felt was wrong, and he was complaining to me and he said, ‘Well what do you do, you just have no choice,’ and I said, ‘You always have a choice.'” The colonel ended up agreeing.

To reach her distinctive position, Cabanilla took the road less traveled. Although the percentage of women in Utah receiving post-secondary education ranks below the national average, Cabanilla graduated from BYU with a bachelor’s in English and attended BYU’s Law School having recently given birth to triplets, with a nanny caring for them at home. She graduated from the law school in 1994.

Cabanilla said that despite the unconventionality of her choice, she has felt fulfilled by the process, rather than guilty.

“I did meet other women that felt a lot of guilt if they were working, but I felt, myself, that there was a special calling for me, that there was a something, a reason that I needed to be there,” Cabanilla said.

Cabanilla’s position on the City Council could be at least one of those reasons. One of her favorite topics in the Legislature right now is the downtown area. She cited the construction of the temple, the Nu Skin building, and the Center Street/I-15 remodeling as promising downtown activity.

“I think really in the last several years we’ve seen a real turnaround with different factors, and I can’t take credit for them, but if anything I’ve done has made some of these things come together, I’m just happy,” Cabanilla said. “We’re hoping all of these things kind of come together and create synergy that make the downtown vibrant.”

Cabanilla’s co-workers at the city have noted how Cabanilla’s quiet strength makes her an asset to the city. Louise Jorgenson, who helps schedule the council’s calendar and works on assorted city projects, said that apart from Cabanilla’s impressive resume, her spirit is inspiring.

“Laura is just a very special lady. I think she keeps her cool, she stays calm, she really thinks about the issues and makes decisions on her own about what she feels about them,” Jorgenson said. “She’s an amazing woman, and I just think she thinks independently about issues.”

Matt Taylor, executive director for the council, also said that he values how Cabanilla’s “breadth of experience just gives her a broad perspective on city issues and how they really relate to the big picture.”

Ultimately, Cabanilla said her basic faith in freedom of choice has gotten her to her position of influence and happiness.

“Even if sometimes you feel like you’re forced into something,” she said, “you never are. You always have a choice in how you’re going to react to it. That’s always served me well in feeling like I can stand up and speak out.”

She offers hope to young, shy girls who think they are too quiet to make a difference. Cabanilla said her reserved nature hasn’t stopped her.

“I am naturally a polite person, my voice isn’t loud, (but) I’ll tell people, just because you’re louder doesn’t make your argument better.”

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