While waiting in line to vote in 2016, Vanessa Joseph said she was surprised by how little people seemed to know about local government. The longtime North Miami resident said many didn’t know when, where, how or even why to vote.
Today it’s her job to make sure that they do.
Joseph, 33, is now the youngest person and first Black American woman to be elected city clerk, a role she took on in May 2019. She has dedicated her career to making people aware of the role of municipal government, and also advocating for immigrant and disadvantaged communities in North Miami and throughout the county.
Almost anything I do is focused on Miami-Dade County.
As clerk, Joseph said she has worked to educate North Miami residents on how to vote, what is on the ballot, and how to voice their opinions about city laws and policies. She oversees elections and serves as the official custodian of all municipal documents.
“It has been a tremendous experience for me to do what I’ve always enjoyed doing, which is empowering people to participate in the community around them,” she said. Though her city position is technically part time, she is committed to the work, even on evenings and weekends.
Joseph was born in Chicago to an immigrant Haitian family. She and her parents moved to North Miami when she was 2 years old and have called it home ever since. She said she was raised with traditional Haitian customs and values, but her parents also taught her the importance of interacting with Miami’s diverse cultures.
“Almost anything I do is focused on Miami-Dade County,” said Joseph. “I don’t think I’ve ever had the desire to go anywhere else.”
Joseph has a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s degree in public administration and a law degree, all from the University of Miami.
While in law school she worked for the Health Rights Clinic. There, she specialized in representing people who had health issues and were seeking U.S. citizenship.
Joseph said that because of that experience, she discovered a
passion for immigration law. She began working with Catholic Legal Services in 2015, leading legal orientation programs in immigrant detention centers in South Florida, where she helped detainees understand their rights in court.
“While interviewing Vanessa, we told her that the pay was not on par with larger private law firms, and asked her whether that would be an issue for her and cause her to quickly move on to other opportunities,” said Randy McGrorty, executive director and CEO of Catholic Legal Services. “She immediately replied that she would be there as long as she was needed. To date, she has kept that promise.”
Apart from her work as city clerk and practicing law full time, Joseph also volunteers for nonprofit organizations. Much of her community service efforts are dedicated to providing resources to Haitian American organizations like Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center and the Haitian American Professionals Coalition. She also works with Casa Valentina, a group that helps disadvantaged youth in Miami-Dade County.
“You wonder how many hours she has in a day, that girl,” said Leonie Hermantin, director of development, communications and strategic planning at Sant La. “When someone asks for her help, she doesn’t just lend her name, she lends her energy and participation.”
This story was written for The Miami Times by Florida International University’s South Florida Media Network.