How can Miami address the issue of homelessness while preparing vulnerable communities for climate change? Our conversation with Miami’s Modern-Day Fannie Lou Hamer

Opportunity Miami
Opportunity Miami
Published in
9 min readApr 11, 2023

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By Barry University student Alyssa Diaz for Opportunity Miami

Fannie Lou Hamer led the civil rights movement in Mississippi, fighting for voter and women’s rights and equal economic opportunities for all. Miami native Valencia Gunder has taken on a similar role of focusing on issues of race, gender, and poverty. So it’s no wonder that Gunder has been described as the “modern-day Fannie Lou Hammer” as she continues to run nonprofit organizations like The Smile Trust Inc., which helps tackle homelessness and food insecurity, and The Black Hive, which serves Black communities dealing with extreme climate and weather disasters.

Gunder also works with other community-based organizations, such as the Transinclusive Group, Miami Climate Alliance, and the Black Collective, to name a few.

Having been homeless, Gunder told us she always wanted to help the voices of the most vulnerable and described how Miami can show the rest of the world “what a sustainable community looks like, that is inclusive, and that’s equitable.” Here is the rest of our conversation, edited for brevity.

You are the co-founder of Smile Trust Inc., a non-profit that gives back to the homeless community and individuals in need. Homelessness may be on the rise here in Miami-Dade County, which at its last count noted a 23% increase in the number of people living on the streets. Let’s first discuss homelessness in Miami. How big of a problem is it in Miami, and how can Smile Trust help this vulnerable population?

The Smile Trust supports the unsheltered; we also do relief and housing work for communities all throughout the country. Miami has always been like a playground for the rich. In recent years, we have seen that increase drastically very fast, and it’s impacting the most vulnerable populations. Who are those populations? Black, brown, indigenous, queer, disabled, poor are being displaced, preyed on by the super-rich, the developers, even the local government. They’re allowing our communities to be taken over, bulldozed over, and allowing these huge multi-million-dollar projects to come into places where a median household income is around $18–20,000. People who are dealing with extreme poverty, who still manage to keep a roof over their heads, are not even able to do that anymore. So we are starting to see more people become unsheltered. At one point in time, we could see bringing enough food for like a hundred people and being able to serve everybody. Now, we’re close to 300 people every time we go out there. We are getting phone calls on a daily basis about families sleeping at the park or in cars. Miami, I feel it’s really failing to address the issue of homelessness.

As Miami’s homeless population grows, how are we preparing them for the climate crisis? How is the Trust preparing this community for green jobs — the jobs of the future?

Some of the things we are trying to do are some transitional work to try to help folks get into entry-level green jobs, like solar and tech, to be able to come in so they can survive. Two, to give them opportunities in this next wave. In the past, with the industrial revolution that happened, many people were left out of that conversation because there wasn’t programming there to ensure that everybody could participate. I will try to teach as many people as possible and potentially start doing job readiness skills. I do want to be honest that that is a real heavy lift and even harder if the government doesn’t take care of their taxpayers.

Smile Trust has these four pillars of transparency: Positive Impact, Abundance, Service, and Innovation. Why are these so important in relation to the work you do at this organization?

One of the goals of The Smile Trust is to recommit the community to do service work. Over the years, people have lost trust in organizations like the Smile Trust, not because of it, but you see the news, and people gave all this stuff to the Red Cross and all these organizations, while none of it got to the ground, right? Or were they going to build all these houses, and they never built any of them? Our goal is to be transparent, be transparent about our capacity, be transparent about our fundraising, be transparent about what it is that we can do and how we do it. We also believe in abundance. How do we help and support other organizations that are holding other pieces of this puzzle that make sure our people are cared for? How do we share our resources to make sure the community has what they need during time of despair? How do we share this information that we get with our people to make sure people have a full understanding of all their options when they need to make a whole innovation?

We serve our community because, honestly, our communities are at a place where they have nothing to give us back. They give us a smile. That’s how much we charge. We feel like we do relief work. How do we support our people so that we can lift this boot off their neck just for a little bit until they can become more resilient? That’s why our pillars have determined how we serve people, what we serve people, and in what capacity we serve people.

You started the organization eight years ago. How has it changed over the years? Any highlights you’d like to share?

The first time we went out to feed, I set it up with my friends, and I said I’m going to make some sandwiches, juice, and fruit, and we’re going to buy and feed. A lot of my friends showed up, about 25 volunteers, and everybody brought extra stuff, and we were able to support them. We started out in the back of my friend’s car, in the trunk, that type of stuff. And from there we went to full hot meals and showers. We also have supported transitioning folks out of the streets into housing.

Now I have a home, the Freedom Lab. We have a building and a storage space that we got in 2022. We have full-time staff, and we are super excited to see ourselves continue to expand. We now have Small Haven, which is our community garden. We also have the Community Emergency Operations Center, which has been supporting local communities in times of disaster. We also have Choices, in partnership with the Transinclusive Group, and we have a trans-women safety house that we are launching [this] year. Then we have Rent Gap, which is a program where people are struggling in rent, or they need support, and we offer them support for either their rent or mortgage or move-in fees to help families to stabilize their housing.

When queer, trans, or shelter folks tell us they only come to us and don’t go to other organizations because we are the only ones that allow them to get the clothes that we want as well as allow them to show up in their full selves, that’s a highlight for me. Another is expanding into relief after storms. We’ve been able to service now in several countries like Puerto Rico. We’ve been as far in the U.S. like St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Texas. When we were able to hit thousands of families and get them food, that makes me happy just to empower other organizers and activists to be able to respond to their communities in a real way. Another highlight was being able to bring on the staff full-time. Lastly, being able to support people with actual housing. So, being able to support folks, not everybody yet, but to support as many people as we can, brings me extreme happiness.

Let’s move on to one of your other projects: The Black Hive — a climate change initiative that unites hundreds of Black environmental leaders and organizations to find equitable climate solutions focused on Black communities. What are some of the goals for 2023?

The Black Hive is carbon environmental justice work as a Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), which is a national organization. We’ve been around two years now. It’s a little over 200 activists, organizers, and organizations that focus on climate environmental justice work across the U.S. We have membership in every region across the U.S., and now we just went globally in five countries in Africa. This year we are planning to introduce the Earthseed Fellowship, and it’s going to be teaching Black power-building organizations how to specifically work on climate-resilient issues. What we notice in black organizations is that not a lot of them focus on climate change and climate reality because Black communities are dealing with a lot all around. Our goal is to identify organizations that are willing to learn and want to add this body of work and work with them to build it out. Training, political education workshops, and ground training like CPR. Also, supporting financially for these organizations and technical support from The Smile Trust during our first year holding that type of work.

Lastly, we will be introducing the Red, Black, & Green New Deal legislation here in the U.S. to the federal government.

You’ve also focused your efforts on elevating other issues impacting the most vulnerable communities: gentrification, housing, food safety, climate change, and restoring voting rights, which has led to you being described as the “Modern Day Fannie Lou Hamer” after the women’s rights and voting rights activist during the civil rights movement and beyond. How do you respond to that comparison?

I was first called Fannie Lou Hamer after I started doing disaster relief work. A lot of people forget that Fannie Lou Hamer also did food security work here in the U.S. The comparison, I mean, it makes my heart smile because if I had to be dubbed after anybody, I would’ve wanted to be Fannie Lou Hamer. I think that she is one of the most powerful leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. The reason why is because one, she was older than most of the folks that were inside of the movement at the time, and she didn’t come from an educational background. She was a sharecropper and from the South like me. She’s a plus-size woman like me, and she’s a very opinionated woman like me. I had studied her for many years. I hope that she’s in heaven smiling down and proud that I am carrying on her legacy.

In helping vulnerable communities prepare for a changing climate, where do you see Miami in 2040 in terms of how climate will impact the homeless and Black communities?

If we keep going on this track, Miami will lose all its flavor. It would become a city of high rises and tourists and it would lack the magic of Miami. I also think climate disasters are going to hit us badly. We haven’t had a real head-on storm in years. It can take that one catastrophic storm to rock Miami, and I am nervous that Miami may not be able to bounce back. I’m not talking about the developers and rich people. Of course, they can bounce back because they have the money. I’m talking about the everyday working class. That is 60%+ of our city. If we could get it together, Miami can lead the world on what a sustainable community looks like, that is inclusive and that’s equitable.

What does the future of Smile Trust and The Black Hive look like in Miami?

Miami is home. The future for The Smile Trust looks like growth. It looks like expanding, more abundance, and more programs that make sense for our people in this specific time that we’re in. In the future, it looks like more advocacy, cities, scaling for our people, and a land strategy. For the Black Hive, I just want it to become a tool for local organizers and statewide organizers so they can use these tools to get their local communities to resiliency. Our goal is to get as many people involved for us to build a plan for our communities collectively here and outside of Miami for us to be able to ride this wave into this new climate reality.

This is the second conversation in an ongoing partnership with Barry University, allowing students to create and produce content for Opportunity Miami.

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