By Michidael Ceard
This is what Fannie Lou Hamer wanted democracy to look like.
Valencia Gunder — a second-generation Bahamian who grew up in Liberty City became a notable Miami activist fighting for equitable black communities across the nation. She is a vivacious woman who thrives off energy and power and, like Hamer, she is unafraid to take up space and assume a loud presence.
Hamer was a black Mississippi political activist who organized around issues of race, gender, and poverty.
Gunder works as a program manager for the New Florida Majority, a non-profit organization fighting for criminal justice and voter access rights. Gunder loves the Miami community and the work she does.
“How can I fix the world and not fix my block first? I make sure I’m knee-deep here. My work means nothing if the people in Liberty City don’t know my name and can’t call on me for my services,” Gunder said.
Jabari Walkman, colleague, and fellow activist sees the drive that she possesses.
“Valencia truly believes in her community. She’s like, ‘this is my people, and the authorities don’t care for my people so I’m gonna figure something out.’ The love she has for her city is intense,” said Walkman.
Assuredly, this stems from Gunder’s experiences. Both of her parents were addicted to drugs and she witnessed poverty and crime in the late ‘80s. This pushed her to have a sense of responsibility in helping her community.
Her first attempt at this was attending college. She earned her bachelor’s degree in agricultural international business at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, Florida.
FAMU allowed Gunder to learn the essentials of political organizing as a Florida activist. She remembers feeding the homeless during a Thanksgiving holiday weekend and creating a drive for Haitian earthquake victims in 2010. Her favorite memory was organizing a sit-in at their president’s office. It was successful and set Gunder up to do bigger things in the future.
However, she encountered many roadblocks after obtaining her degree.
Shortly after her graduation, she was arrested for a bounced tuition check in 2010. She claims that this was the most difficult period of her life.
“I was incarcerated for 55 days and it was horrid. It opened my eyes to mass incarceration and the troubles of the system. They tried to give me three years in prison for one check. The fact that I literally paid the check, fines, and fees, and they still made it hard to get out of the system was crazy,” said Gunder.
The arrest still haunts Gunder who is now a convicted felon. However, it fueled her activism work and shaped the issues she fights for on her agenda. Her inspiration, Fannie Lou Hamer, was also imprisoned for a short time during her work in civil rights.
This past year, Gunder managed to pass the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act that certified that women in prison would be given sanitary napkins and tampons. Based on her prison experience, she knew how dehumanizing the experience was and wanted to create a piece of legislation in Florida that wouldn’t allow other women to go through the same tragedy.
In 2018, her piece of legislation became law with 100 percent support from the Florida Congress. She explains that it was one of her happiest moments as a Miami activist.
“My passion is to make healthy, safe and viable communities. To me, that looks like a person who has safety, their rights, a place to live, a job to work in, and health,” said Gunder.
Walkman also commented on Gunder’s successes.
“The wins I’ve seen Valencia achieve, my people have been demanding for years. She’s really doing the work,” said Walkman.
She also accomplished great strides with the youth in her community by implementing initiatives like the Dollar Trap, an event that focuses on economic sufficiency in black and brown communities through a creative, Monopoly-like board game format.
Interestingly, Fannie Lou Hamer was also known for her work in mentoring youth in social justice.
“Gen Z’ers have a revolutionary mindset and they are here to dismantle,” said Gunder.
“Many aren’t talkers, they’re doers.”
Evidently, Gunder, like her assumed activism mother Fannie Lou Hamer, is unafraid to take up space no matter how uncomfortable others might feel.
Gunder will be ‘moving and shaking’ for the liberation of oppressed Miami communities for years to come.