Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Victoria Cantrella knew she wanted to be a lawyer. Her eight-year-old self figured it was her destiny because she was good at winning arguments. But as she got older, and wiser, she realized the law was a calling that would allow her to do well by doing good.
“I wanted to be a voice for those who couldn’t speak for themselves,” Cantrella says. “I wanted to be an advocate, and to make society and the world around me a better place. I saw the law as the best way to combine my interests with what I believed to be my purpose.” When it was time to apply to law school, Cantrella was drawn to St. John’s because of its Vincentian mission of serving people in need. Soon after starting her legal studies, she found a mentor in Professor David L. Gregory, the founding director of the Law School’s Center for Labor and Employment Law.
Professor Gregory had built an unrivaled labor and employment law program at St. John’s, and Cantrella immersed herself in it. “Professor Gregory was an amazing mentor, teacher, and guide,” she shares. “I took Employment Discrimination, Labor Law, Employment Law, and was an extern at the U.S. Department of Labor during law school. All of these experiences were instrumental in my professional development and career path.”
Following graduation, as that path took Cantrella to work in a range of settings—from the New York City Law Department, to private practice, and then NYC Health + Hospitals—labor and employment retained its appeal. “I saw that, regardless of what someone does in life, they’re either going to work for someone, or someone is going to work for them,” she says. “I also understood that, since people spend most of their time at work, it's very easy for that relationship to become imbalanced, troubled, or fraught with difficulties. So there needs to be rules, protections, and structure in the workplace.”
A little over a year ago, Cantrella got the opportunity to engage her longtime interests while serving one of New York City’s most vulnerable populations as Director of Labor & Employee Relations at Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC). The non-profit helps over 10,000 people each year through programs and services that include outreach to the unsheltered homeless; transitional housing and shelter; permanent housing; substance abuse treatment; mental and physical health services; workforce development; and senior services. In a city where homelessness has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression, impacting some 60,000 individuals, it’s a crucial undertaking.
“I’m excited to be able to serve the public as I help steer the direction of the organization through its HR department,” Cantrella says of the rewarding job that has her developing, disseminating, and implementing workplace polices, systems, and protocols. She also helps to prepare the agency's responses to government complaints and employment-related litigation; handles employee grievances; collaborates on internal training of staff; and advises, guides, and counsels on performance matters, employee conduct, and accommodations in the workplace, among other responsibilities.
As she supports BRC’s efforts to alleviate homelessness from behind the scenes, Cantrella makes the time to give back to St. John’s Law. She volunteers with the Career Development Office’s mock interview program and is a mentor attorney to St. John’s students who extern at BRC. She also serves on the Advisory Board to the student-run Labor and Employment Law Society. “I enjoy paying it forward,” she says. “Just as my St. John’s Law mentors helped me define my path and purpose, I want to help students discover a career path that’s meaningful and rewarding for them.”
St. John's Women's Law Society will honor Cantrella with its 2020 Public Service Award in recognition of her "unwavering commitment to making a positive change in the world by practicing in the public interest sector." The award ceremony is part of the student group's special celebration of Women's History Month and the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment on March 18, 2020.