Color of Climate: Meet a Power Player in Miami’s Fight Against Climate Gentrification

Valencia Gunder (Ashley Velez/The Root)

There’s one nickname Valencia Gunder says she’s never used for her hometown of Miami—the Magic City. Though she’s lived there her whole life, the 33-year-old resident of Liberty City, a predominantly black and working-class neighborhood in northwest Miami, told The Root, “Maybe where I grew up at, it was never magic for us.”

But Gunder is more than aware of the nickname, especially considering that a $1 billion development project by the same name is underway in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Little Haiti, where she works as a community organizer for New Florida Majority, an organization aimed at empowering and mobilizing historically marginalized groups.


“Once they build this Magic City innovative community and all of the other big developments that are happening, that we’ve been trying to fight, Little Haiti will be wiped away,” she said.

According to Gunder, these mainly working-class (pdf) residents have a high chance of being displaced because of climate gentrification. In a city where prime real estate appears to be properties situated multiple feet above sea level in low-income communities, many fear they’re on the verge of being pushed or priced out of the spaces they call home. Little Haiti happens to sit 10 feet above sea level.

In the second of a three-part series, The Root talked to Gunder and others on the front lines in the fight against climate change about how it influences gentrification in marginalized communities in South Florida.

Gunder’s fight for climate justice began two years ago after she attended a listening session hosted by the Climate Leadership Engagement Opportunities Institute on behalf of her boss, who couldn’t make it. The CLEO Institute is a nonprofit designed to grow the climate literacy of South Florida’s most vulnerable populations.


“They were discussing climate and first responding, but through the lens of equity, low-income communities and people of color,” Gunder said.

Gunder, who earned a degree in international agricultural business from Florida A&M University, has learned a lot about environmental science issues through an agricultural perspective. But her upbringing in Liberty City allowed her to also acknowledge the human element of climate’s impacts.


Gunder says she was later approached by CLEO Institute founder Caroline Lewis, also known as the Jane Goodall of climate change, to work together on other projects. Eventually, Gunder facilitated a town hall meeting in Liberty City where she heard both the concerns of residents, which included gentrification, and the perspectives of elected officials.

“We see the climate gentrification. We see the inequity, and you’re frustrated because you’re living it,” Gunder said. “[But] what the CLEO Institute does is take your fussing, and they give you the science to back you up.”


One tool used by the CLEO Institute is Eyes on the Rise, an online data-visualization program developed at Florida International University. It displays elevation above sea level and provides a visual realization of where water would be if levels rose by zero to 6 feet.

“The places that are dry are Allapattah, Little Haiti, Liberty City and parts of Overtown,” said Lewis. All of these neighborhoods are majority-black and low income.


“Historically, because of segregation and racism, black people were forced to move away from the beach,” Gunder said. “They didn’t want us on their pretty beaches.” The history of redlining and segregation in South Florida is well-documented, and Miami Beach was a major reason.

But as concerns surrounding rising sea levels come to the surface, people may be looking away from the beach for more long-term deals.


Prior to investing in some of South Florida’s high-level properties, including Little Haiti, which he refers to as Lemon City, commercial real estate investor Peter Ehrlich said the area was filled with used-clothing stores, trash on the streets and “crack-addict labor.”

Peter Ehrlich (Ashley Velez/The Root)

“That went on for eight or 10 or 12 years until we got involved in 1998, and it took a little bit of time, but we had got rid of it all,” he said. He now owns just under 4 acres of land in the area. Ehrlich says he first decided to move inland because prices were low, not because of sea level concerns.

“You can get a lot of space and the evaluations were, at the time, very depressed,” he said.


But now that high ground is more valuable, he’s holding on to what he has.

“It makes me a little less motivated to sell because it’s hard to find nice property on high ground and I like seeing how the changes are occurring right now,” he said.


When asked by The Root if he believed climate gentrification is real, he said that though people are starting to talk about it more, “I haven’t seen anybody that’s been investing in this area that mentions sea level rise or climate change.”

He did admit, however, “that’s the kind of thing that people keep to themselves, too. You don’t really want to give away your motivations.”


Overall, Ehrlich believes he’s improving the community by investing in it.

“For somebody who wants no crime and a better-looking area, we would be considered the good guys,” he said. “But for somebody that wants to keep rent very, very low and below market, we would be considered the bad guys because we’re making the area look better.”


Gunder disagrees with him.

“If you’re truly trying to help the people of Little Haiti, why not come here and help them grow the stuff they already have? We could walk into all these mom-and-pop stores and see if any investor came in to talk to them about expanding and helping them grow. You don’t see investors talking about that,” she said.


Schiller Sanon-Jules, co-owner of the Little Haiti Thrift & Gift Store, is aware of the realities of gentrification in his area and is feeling its pressures.

Schiller Sanon-Jules (Ashley Velez/The Root)

“Most of the people are being forced out,” he said. Moreover, the small-business owner says he’s seen people in his community disappear and new people move in.

“We don’t know what else to do,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that our people are not together.”


“Climate is a human thing. It’s not just science,” Gunder said.

Climate is a threat multiplier, and for those already marginalized by race, income level and immigration status, just to name a few, basic needs come first. A report in the Science journal emphasized how climate change could overwhelmingly affect poor Americans. Lewis agrees with that notion and can imagine its effects in South Florida.


“We have been playing hurricane roulette for 11 years,” she said. “If anything is compromised, anybody who could leave is out of here. When toilets can’t flush and cholera sets in, they’re out. But 50 percent of people can’t leave.”

Gunder also understands the struggle faced by people on the ground firsthand through her organizing.


“If [people] have to choose between buying hurricane supplies and paying this rent, they’re paying this rent first,” she said.

And that’s why these women want to educate people in at-risk, low-income communities by weaving crucial information about climate change into their daily language and lives.


“We don’t expect [people] to change light bulbs and drive a hybrid, but we do expect them to take action [how they can],” said Lewis.

One way is by marching, speaking up and being in the rooms where climate change discussions are taking place. Gunder is doing it all.


On Donald Trump’s 100th day in office, she helped organize a march for climate change with fellow activists in South Florida. She’s also working within communities to ensure that residents are being heard and working with the scientific community to include more diverse voices.

In 2016, Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County joined the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities network. The goal of the network is to grow partner cities’ resilience while providing them funding to address climate change in their area.


Gunder was invited to one of the first planning meetings, and though she appreciated being there, she acknowledged a lack of equity. The impacts of climate change faced by Miami Beach are different from how climate change affects areas like Liberty City and Little Haiti. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to climate change, she says, and she wants to make sure that is understood.

“Everyone needs shoes to walk outside, but if you give everyone a size 7, you’re not helping nobody except the people who can wear a size 7. If I need a size 13, give me a size 13 if you really want to help me,” Gunder said.


But being invited is a step in the right direction and shows that those in charge of Miami’s partnership with the 100 Resilient Cities network are taking equity into consideration, she said. “And to be honest, the communities of color will not let them forget.”

Lewis is incredibly proud of the work Gunder has done and said, “we want hundreds of people to be Valencia” because “she’s a powerhouse for climate justice.”


But Gunder doesn’t think of herself as a superstar.

“I only speak on behalf of people who don’t usually have the opportunity to speak,” said Gunder.


This article was made with support from Participant Media, the creator of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.

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About the author

Jessica Moulite

Jessica Moulite is a Video Producer for The Root. She loves telling stories people often times can't tell themselves—and Oprah. She's probably watching Black 90s reruns.