Shattered Ceilings: The pianist, pastor and mayor Dr. Ayanna Shivers

Fiona Murphy/Gatehouse Missouri
Ayanna Shivers stands on her balcony Sept. 26 at Lincoln University on Dunklin Street before the Jefferson City skyline.

The following story is part of a new GateHouse Missouri series, “Shattered Ceilings,” featuring women in professional positions of power and responsibility in Mid-Missouri, such as mayors, police chiefs, medical professionals, business owners and more.

Political power in this country has historically looked white and male. Ayanna Shivers helped alter that common profile when she was selected as Mexico’s first black, female mayor April 8 by the Mexico City Council.

Women have never been more engaged in politics in the U.S. than last November when the nation experienced an influx of females running for political office. Missouri trails behind the national average for number of female lawmakers, according to the Associated Press, ranking 33rd in highest percentage of female state legislators. Only seven of the 100 largest U.S. cities have black female mayors, and Shivers is the only one in Missouri.

Shivers never thought much about making history in Mexico by winning the mayoral seat; she simply likes to win.

“I’m a competitive person,” Shivers said. “You can't allow society's perception to dissuade you. It has to come from within.”

Mexico has been home for Shivers for more than a generation. Growing up here, she was quickly recognized as a leader and academically gifted. One of her earliest memories, most of which are impressively detailed, is of being in first grade with a speech impediment. Her teacher tested her for special needs and kept her out of the advanced reading group after she had requested to move up. The answer, she clearly recounts, was simply no.

That summer her school held a reading competition. Shivers took the competition as an opportunity to prove herself after staying in the lower reading group. Coming in second place, an eight-year-old Shivers read 365 books to improve her reading ability from elementary to middle and high school level.

From that summer on, Shivers was promptly placed in the gifted program where she remained for a good portion of her education.

“I started learning this at an early age, I could be just as good, but I wasn't going to be recognized,” Shivers said. “If I wanted to be recognized, I had to do better than the next person. It didn’t take a lot to start seeing that happen over and over again in my life.”

For those affected by multiple forms of discrimination such as sexism or racism, oppression is something you get used, according to Shivers. Luckily, her identity coupled with her drive and natural confidence gave her a unique perspective and work ethic serving her well as a therapist, pastor, educator and now mayor.

Shivers left Mexico for the first time as a young woman who was ambitious and hungry to find opportunities. She attended college in Tulsa and switched majors from engineering and math to public relations journalism, but briefly considered pursuing classical piano.

After college, she moved to South Carolina to earn a masters degree in education. She was a part-time substitute teacher in an area with a large minority population and statistically low number of high school graduates. Students started coming to her, not for academic help, but for advice about life and career choices.

She enjoyed helping young people navigate their complicated life, which led her to get a PhD in education from Southern Mississippi University before returning to South Carolina, where she was a school counselor for 18 years.

Each summer break, Shivers would come home to Missouri to avoid the seasonal flood of tourists in Myrtle Beach. Upon her return, she began to notice similar issues facing students and families in Mexico.

Ultimately, Shivers believes God called her back to her hometown for a purpose beyond her understanding. The little voice in her head has called her to do many things in her life, and it seemed to blurt it out: go home.

“I just knew it wasn't me thinking that thought,” Shivers said. “I would not have come up with that thought, and just the way things started aligning itself, I followed it.”

Shortly after returning to Mexico, Shivers began going to City Council meetings. She was curious after hearing from members of the community complaining about the shortcomings of local government. When she showed up, the council was all male and all white.

The lack of diversity in leadership, she felt, was creating tension between politicians and people. Soon after, she decided to run for mayor. She lost by 18 votes.

“I think that maybe they [community members] thought I didn't have a snowball's chance of getting on, you know, being a female, being black,” Shivers said. “So to come so close, it woke some people up.”

As mayor, Shivers wants to ensure continuous communication between politicians and the people they serve. The monthly “Munch with the Mayor” program allows Shivers to gather with people for breakfast, lunch or dinner to talk. The meetings have ranged from “munching” with a hundred to six people. Shivers says she would do it if only one person showed up.

Her years working as a therapist and her experience navigating the professional world as a black woman she feels has given her the strength and patience to lead.

“I never dreamed of being a leader,” Shivers said. “I like to think in some ways leaders are born. But really, I think it's a person who has the ability to get the attention and the respect of others. And they look up to that person, not as somebody who's better, but somebody who can help them get and make their situation better.”

Last year, she ran for state Senate as a Democrat against the incumbent Republican Senator Jeanie Riddle and lost. Historically, Shivers does not like to lose, so it is likely the state will be seeing her name on the ballot in upcoming state office elections. For now, she is happy to be connecting with people in the town that raised her, and she hopes to be running against more women and people of color in her political future.

“I may have shattered a ceiling, but that next generation, because it's already been shattered, they're going to be able to go even further than I could have even imagined,” Shivers said. “I think that's the beauty of it — realizing, even though you shatter a ceiling, it's only the beginning of what more is to come.”