Miami People

Valencia Gunder Wants to Transform Miami

Valencia Gunder Wants to Transform Miami
Photo by Michael Campina

Valencia Gunder isn't merely "from Miami." The roots of her Miami heritage run deeper. "My family is one of the pioneer Bahamian families in Miami. My great-great-great-great-grandfather was born in Dade territory 20 years before the city was chartered," she explains. "So I consider that I have a birthright to this place. I get up every day and think that my family helped build this place, and I have to help maintain it."

And she's succeeding. Gunder, or "Vee" to those who know her, is one of South Florida's most active advocates, working to solve homelessness and housing issues, poverty, gun violence, and climate change.

If you're in Miami, Gunder is working to make your life better.

Raised in Liberty City, Gunder has firsthand experience with issues such as poverty and crime. "Liberty City, people know the history of it, the good and the bad," she says. "It's a predominantly black community, and at one point in time, it was extremely affluent. But for a bunch of different reasons, later it became impoverished, crime-stricken, and littered with social ills. I grew up in it."

Those formative experiences later became the foundation of Gunder's activism. "As I grew older, I began to understand why it was happening and who was responsible for it and the different layers of it. Just knowing and understanding the whys and the whos and the hows of these type of communities really helps me out when it's time to do work."

"Service is like a drug to me. It really makes me feel good to do it."

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In 2014, Gunder founded Make the Homeless Smile, a nonprofit offering meals, showers, haircuts, and other basic but often unavailable services to homeless individuals in Miami and Atlanta. She's also worked with organizations such as the New Florida Majority in pursuit of a better life for South Floridians.

Last year, Gunder made headlines in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, when the Community Emergency Operation Center (CEOC), a relief service she organized during the leadup to the storm, was able to deliver supplies and support to 18 low-income communities before any other organization reached them.

"When we had a Category 5 hurricane coming toward Florida, I knew that lower-income communities would not be served properly," she says. "History shows that." Drawing on her vast network of contacts, she filled a warehouse with supplies. "We were able to respond within hours of the storm," Gunder recalls. The CEOC helped 23,000 people last year.

The warehouse was ready for storms this year too; when none touched South Florida, Gunder loaded the supplies on an 18-wheeler and sent it to the Florida Panhandle for Hurricane Michael relief.

Gunder is working on expanding the CEOC into a year-round operation and also wants to help other cities launch their own versions of the program. And she's continuing to research gun violence, running her nonprofit, and driving the grassroots improvement of South Florida in what seems like innumerable ways. "Service is like a drug to me," she explains. "It really makes me feel good to do it. I know that's a cliché thing, that service makes you feel good, but it's a deep-down passion. It's something that I'm really excited to wake up and do every day, and I go to sleep thinking about it every single night."

Ron Magill | Valerie Navarrete

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Ciara LaVelle is New Times' former arts and culture editor. She earned her BS in journalism at Boston University and moved to Florida in 2004. She joined New Times' staff in 2011.
Contact: Ciara LaVelle