Valencia “Vee” Gunder’s self-described addiction is service.
From mobilizing 500 volunteers to feed 23,000 families after Hurricane Irma devastated her hometown of Miami, Florida, in 2017, to grappling with solutions around intracommunity gun violence, Gunder wants nothing more than for her people to be healthy, thriving, and whole.
“I over-love helping people. I over-love assisting. I wake up wanting to do it. I go to sleep wanting to do it. I daydream about ways that I can fix my community and help people all the time,” she candidly told ESSENCE during a phone call earlier this week.
The 35-year-old powerhouse is known within her community as the “Modern Day Fannie Lou Hamer,” an awe-inspiring comparison that fills Gunder with pride and a fierce determination to carry on Hamer’s legacy.
Her life has not always been this way, though; in fact, a little less than a decade ago, Gunder was just trying to survive.
During a routine traffic stop in 2010, she discovered that the Leon County Sheriff’s Office had issued a fugitive warrant for her arrest in a fraud case. That traffic stop led to 45 days of incarceration and a grueling extradition process, during which she was bounced around from facility to facility, county to county, learning the cruel reality of what incarcerated women face along the way.
“Certain facilities would give me sanitary napkins…some facilities wouldn’t give me tissue. I was super embarrassed,” Gunder said. “As an adult woman, you don’t like to admit that you don’t have a sanitary napkin, or you are not able to maintain yourself, or be healthy and safe. Usually, like with most violations, women try to hold it to themselves.”
Gunder admits to once being “ignorant” of the criminal justice system and how it functions to isolate and stigmatize people on a systemic level. In 2010, she thought maybe she was the only person subjected to such dehumanizing treatment, so she didn’t know who to turn to for help.
“I just shut up and I was literally sitting in my soil for long periods of time,” Gunder said quietly. “It was so traumatizing to even continuously talk about it. Then, in 2017, after I begin to share my story, I realized that thousands of women around the country have experienced the same, exact thing, and it is heartbreaking.”
Gunder’s brave decision to tell her story in 2017 was the catalyst that drew her to Topeka Sam, the Director of #cut50’s Dignity for Incarcerated Women Campaign.
She became the Dignity Ambassador for the state of Florida, and, in 2018, she worked on the passage of Amendment 4–legislation designed to automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions (with the exception of felony murder and felony sexual offenses).
This year, Gunder was instrumental to the passage of the Dignity For Incarcerated Women’s Act in her home state—legislation that ensures incarcerated women have access to free and unlimited personal hygiene products across all correctional facilities in the state, as well as prohibits male officers from conducting strip searches, cavity searches, and pat-downs of women, as long as they are not in danger of harming themselves or others.
Ultimately, Gunder says, the Dignity Act needs to prohibit pregnant women from being placed in solitary confinement. She points to the case of Tammy Jackson, who earlier this year gave birth alone while locked in a cell in Broward County, without any medical assistance as an example.
“We will be introducing the Tammy Jackson Act… this year during legislative session,” Gunder confirmed.
Serving The Entire Community
Though Gunder is focused on Dignity measures in Florida, she has never stopped strategizing around new and effective ways to serve. This commitment led her to create Smile Trust Inc. (formerly known as “Make the Homeless Smile Miami and Atlanta”) an organization birthed from her own experience with being homeless back in 2009.
“Homelessness is also criminalized, you know. And as I was out there serving these individuals, they’re telling me about the police harassing them. One month I’d go out and I’d see certain individuals, the next month they’re not there,” she said. “They’re in jail because they can’t afford to pay the bail. That was the actual point where I thought that I needed to do a step more.”
Homeless Smile Miami and Atlanta slowly, but surely, evolved into Smile Trust, an organization providing food, haircuts, clothing, and hot showers to underserved communities in exchange for a smile.
Between Atlanta and Miami, Smile Trust now has the capacity to serve approximately 100,000 people.
From Crushing Heartbreak to Collective Healing
When Gunder’s goddaughter, 8-year-old Jada Page, was shot to death in August 2016, the horror of losing her helped crystalize Gunder’s mission.
“What I do well is build coalitions,” she says with self-awareness and determination. “I believe that there are ways that we can get justice for our families victimized by gun violence, while also holding people accountable without criminalizing communities, without filling up prisons, and without stripping people of their dignity.”
And, for Gunder, this work begins with understanding that our communities are beautiful villages filled with amazing human beings deserving of fairness, equity, justice, and joy.
“I firmly believe that your neighbor is your first responder and fighting for those who are oppressed is our duty,” Gunder said. “I fight for those who are oppressed I am dedicating the rest of my life to doing just that—and that’s it.”