Gabriel Making a Splash in the Virgin Islands
By Krista Rinehart, CSG Toll Fellows Program Manager
Derek Gabriel has been making a splash in the government of the Virgin Islands for some time.
At 28, Gabriel has held several influential positions within the Virgin Islands government, including his current job as special adviser to the governor. While many might think youth would be a hindrance, Gabriel has found that he leaves more of an impression because of his age.
He spearheaded a series of town hall meetings for Gov. John deJohng Jr. in 2010.
“Our goal was to bring government and its leaders into the communities we serve—essentially bringing government directly to the people,” he said. “At the time, I was 27. In the Virgin Islands, that is a big deal because ‘the face of government’ and public service here is usually older. It was good to know that I’m successfully changing the negative stigma of carelessness and selfishness associated with people in my generation.”
A summer internship with Donna Christensen, congressional representative for the Virgin Islands, introduced Gabriel to public service. He went into the experience thinking it would look good on his resume, but came out of it with a whole new perspective on service and a new direction for his life.
“Delegate Christensen took me along for constituent meetings, appearances and speaking engagements and meetings with other elected officials,” said Gabriel. “It showed me that public service was truly that—taking the time to use your talents, resources and abilities to help those in the community.
“That remains my motivation for working in public service—using my God-given talents and abilities to work for the betterment of our small community.”
Gabriel is seeking to serve his community at a particularly difficult time. The Virgin Islands are facing many of the same issues that plague the contiguous states, but Gabriel believes the islands are feeling many of the problems more acutely because of their size.
“I believe the biggest issues facing the Virgin Islands are similar to those in other states,” said Gabriel, “terrible economic climate and an aging and crumbling infrastructure. These issues are magnified here because our community is so small, roughly 110,000 people total. Therefore, these issues affect everyone immediately, no matter who you are or where you live. No one is immune.”
The Virgin Islands also faces a unique challenge—it has no constitution. Gabriel began working on the issue a few years ago as part of Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone’s staff and he is passionate about helping the islands define themselves as a people and a community. Gabriel believes that successfully creating a constitution will force various parties and factions “to put our relatively minor differences aside in order to address the bigger issue of a constitution.”
But that will take consensus building, something Gabriel has a lot of experience with as a key member of the governor’s staff. Gabriel defines himself as “an interactive leader” and follows a similar philosophy when seeking consensus among sides that don’t traditionally agree.
“I like to compare it (consensus building) to tennis,” said Gabriel. “You eventually have to hit the ball back into the other person’s court in order to give them a chance. It is an ongoing game. Oftentimes, we try to play either chess or golf where we want to hold on to the chance to make a move for as long as we possibly can or hit the ball as far as we possibly can. This simply hinders progress. That’s why tennis is such an exciting sport—because there’s so much immediate back and forth. We need to keep lines of communication open, offering the other party a chance for meaningful contribution to the ongoing discussion.”
While he is still at the beginning of his career, Gabriel’s organizational abilities and talent for bringing people together are among the leadership skills that made him one of the youngest officials ever selected for the Toll Fellowship Program; he’s a member of the 2011 class. He credits his mother for teaching him the importance of the hard work and dedication that have served him so well professionally.
“My entire moral compass comes from her,” said Gabriel. “Everything from the importance of volunteering and giving back to the community to committing 100 percent of yourself to everything you do. My mother worked two jobs for most of my life, but she would always find time to check my homework, help me study, and everything else a mother is ‘supposed’ to do.”