I met Tony Shivers in Asheville on a fall day back in October 2017. Tracey Greene-Washington, a board member of EducationNC, and I were learning more about Youth Transformed for Life (YTL). At the time, Shivers was working as YTL’s activities coordinator and after-school facilitator.
The mission of YTL is:
YTL Training Programs support disenfranchised communities as they strive to succeed in an inequitable system. As educators, mentors, advocates, and neighbors, we create bridges for children and families to overcome the current gaps of disparity. We are guardians of the rights of children and their families…. By meeting community members where they are, physically and emotionally, we will earn their trust and offer tools they can choose to employ as they work towards prosperity. Our ultimate goal is to cultivate a contagious community of compassion in which all human beings are guaranteed access to proper education, health services, safety, and economic stability.
Shivers, along with Libby Kyles and Yashika Smith, founded YTL back in 2014. Learn more about their collective leadership and see the “contagious community of compassion” they have created for students in this video. You can also see that the kids don’t love hiking.
Slowing down with Shivers, the teacher
The day I visited, Shivers invited me to join in the mindfulness practice he was leading to center the kids, which is what he called them. We placed yoga mats on the floor of what became a crowded room in a church.
Shivers led with a reflection on the day and how the kids arrived to the moment. “What was your favorite part of the day?” he wondered. One by one, the students recounted their day from waking up until they took their positions on the mats.
Shivers brought out a mindfulness bell. “Close your eyes,” he said to the kids. “Listen to the bell until you can’t hear it anymore.”
Asking the kids to observe their posture, Shivers struck the bell with a percussion hammer. It bellowed — the knell ringing lower and lower with each reverberation until it gave way to silence. One by one, the kids raised their hands to signal they couldn’t hear the bell any more.
“Think of a word you like,” he asked next. As the bell sounded again, he asked the kids to think about all the ways they could use their word in a sentence until they couldn’t hear the bell any more.
The third time Shivers rang the bell, he asked the students to breathe in for the duration of the bell and then exhale. They did that twice.
Shivers then led the kids in a series of stretches. “Stretch your legs out,” he instructed. Students extended their right hand over to touch their left toes and then their left hand over to touch their right toes.
The students moved onto all fours, and then Shivers led them in a stretch that required them to extend their legs out and get up on their toes. A plank.
It was hard — for me and the kids.
He had us sit back on our feet in a kneeling position and then put our forehead on the floor.
He then got all of us to walk ourselves up into a standing position slowly. “As slow as possible,” he urged.
Shivers ended with tree pose, a nod to growth and transformation.
The kids shared their words with each other to bring closure to the practice.
Shivers looked straight at me, and he said, “Part of my story is complicated, but it’s an interesting story.”
“I grew up here in Asheville,” he continued. “My Dad was killed when I was eight years old.” He said the loss “imprisoned me emotionally.”
Shivers opened up to me in a way that was in equal parts humbling and inspiring. It is the whole of his story that is important. It doesn’t come apart in pieces.
Learning from Shivers, the mentor
Shivers started by explaining to me that as he was raised he didn’t share his emotions. “It was a sign of weakness,” he said.
In elementary school, he was labeled with attention deficit disorder and dyslexia. “It was embarrassing when the teacher called on me to read,” Shivers said. “In ISS (in school suspension), I could work at my own pace.”
“I didn’t know how to deal with racism,” he continued. He dropped out of his advanced placement classes. “Ursula Shaw is the only teacher,” he said, “who told me I deserved to be in those classes because I could do the work.”
Shivers said he felt out of place in college. He talked about the pressure of being told “you’re going to be the one to make it.”
After his college roommate was killed, Shivers came home to Asheville.
He told me he heard his mom crying about paying the bills. Instead of getting a job, he said, he ended up in jail.
From jail, he made a collect call to his mom. “Just to hear her voice on the other side of the phone,” he said. “It was heartbreaking to have the things I was hiding exposed.”
Imprisoned, Shivers thought about power and influence. He thought about trust. He said to himself: “I am 100% responsible for 100% of my actions 100% of the time.”
He learned about the connection between thoughts and emotions and behavior. He remembered a cookout when he was back home in Asheville. His daughter was there. He noted, “I didn’t teach her to ride a bike. I didn’t teach her to read.”
Shivers told me he was still having a vision then. “I’m going to get off the bus and my dad will be there.”
He told me he realized he wanted to be a team player. He wanted to manage stress. He wanted to be responsible. He wanted to be a mentor. He wanted to be an example to other people. He wanted to live life with integrity.
And so he did.
It started by learning to break every single situation down. To survey what was happening. To stop and think about what was happening and why. To assess his options. And then to think about how not to get in the same situation again.
“I never knew how to slow down,” he said.
Remember how he told his students in the mindfulness exercise, “as slow as possible”?
“These are things our young people don’t know how to do today. This is what makes me feel accomplishment,” he said, “to give back to the community.”
Shivers said, “You don’t have to be what this world told you you would be.”
Creating social change with Shivers, the leader
“CoThinkk started in 2014 with the intention to deploy investment strategies that address education, economic mobility/opportunity, and leadership development towards impacting some of the most critical social issues facing African-American and Latinx communities in Western North Carolina,” according to a press release. Each year, the organization asks the community it serves to “nominate leaders of color and allies who are playing a critical role in the social change ecosystem of Western NC and working to shift the narrative of communities of color!”
In 2019, Shivers and three other leaders won the Community Leadership Award.
In 2018, Shivers and C.A.S.E. Management was among the organization’s grant recipients. According to CoThinkk’s website, “C.A.S.E. Management was started by three black men who grew up in Asheville, NC, two of them being natives. Each member is a former offender, now providing social services for former offenders, whether it’s going inside the prison or assisting with career development. We will contract with government on the local, state, and federal level; offering consulting, coaching, mentoring, motivational speeches, and trainings. We all have what’s called lived experience and this experience cannot be taught.”
In 2016, YTL received a grant from CoThinkk.
Greene-Washington is also the founder of CoThinkk. She says, “Tony’s one of those unique people that understands and embodies what it means to be a servant leader.”
Shivers is loved, respected, and appreciated by his kids and by his community.
We need more leaders like him.
Behind the Story
In response to concerns of EdNC’s equity editor, we changed the headline from “Give me the kids don’t nobody want” to “You don’t have to be what this world told you you would be.” The original headline perpetuates our reliance on Black males instead of encouraging our shared responsibility.