Building Relationships

By Elizabeth Barnhill

Tonee Shelton’s poetry collections bring connection and conversation to readers

Social worker Tonee Shelton has found a way to have a rewarding professional career while also enjoying the creative outlet of writing poetry.

Shelton was born in Waco but raised in Killeen by her father Tony, who was on active duty in the army, and her mother Barbara, a dental hygienist. She returned to Waco in 2010 to attend Baylor University for her undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work. Shelton has had several jobs in the area working with children but now works at Communities In Schools, a nonprofit that supports students in community partnerships, and also what she describes as equity and belonging work.

A lifelong reader, Shelton first read and loved Stephen King as a child. Her reading life expanded in college to Toni Morrison, June Jordan and other Black feminist writers. Alice Walker was another author who really spoke to Shelton, specifically her book “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”.

It was during Covid that Shelton began writing poetry.

“I put my poetry on Facebook, on my Instagram handle @toneebshelton and on my website,” Shelton recalled. “People responded saying, ‘Oh my goodness, this is exactly how I’m feeling. How did you know?’ And so, I decided to explore how to self-publish.”

Shelton’s preacher at the Hood Street Church of Christ in East Waco advised her to use YouTube Academy to publish her poems as he had used
that program as well to self-publish.

Her first collection “In Search of Freedom” was published in 2021.

“I launched the collection at my friend Rocko Bolts’ barber shop Roc My Style in East Waco. I think I only had 40 books. It was not well planned,” Shelton laughed.

But Shelton did love the process of meeting new people and bonding over certain poems. It encouraged her to write other collections and vowed to herself that she would do them even better. Her resulting collections are called “Identity Crisis” and “Remnants”. All of her books can be purchased
through her website.

Shelton has found many poets she admires, including Maya Angelou, who she considers the blueprint for her art. She also loves “salt.” by Nayyirah Waheed, as well as poetry by Yrsa Daley-Ward and Rupi Kaur.

Shelton has never had formal training in the art of writing poetry but believes in putting hands and feet to the vision that God has for her. She states that there is a certain vulnerability in putting yourself out there in the form of poetry; she wrote many poems under the pen name Bob Left-Foot in order to keep her professional and creative sides separate. She always wants to protect her students at her 9-to-5 job while exercising her own creativity through poetry.

Shelton believes that creativity builds relationships.

“I believe in that we can have a lot of crucial conversations if we couch them in art because people will have conversations about a painting or music or a poem that they probably wouldn’t have just sitting down and talking,” she said.

Shelton loves working at Communities In Schools as well as writing poetry and stated that, “I think that as I embrace my writing that it’s okay for me to have this creative outlet. It helps our students, too, because they can see in real time that, yes, I can be a professional, but also an artist.”

Shelton’s artistry does not just include the written word; she also has been commissioned to be a spoken word artist, which is a very different process than writing poetry. She solicited event coordinators to speak her poetry at local plays and other events and this endeavor has really taken off. She was commissioned by the City of Waco for its community-wide Christmas event. By 2022, Shelton had spoken at a Baylor Alumni event and had been the keynote speaker for the MLK luncheon for the Multicultural Affairs at Baylor. She also spoke at Baylor Law School, interweaving poetry with her training on diversity and belonging, and she opened the play “Mama’s Daughters” at the Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas last year. One of her proudest memories was writing a poem about Juneteenth at a community race relations coalition last summer. Opal Lee, who is considered to be the grandmother of Juneteenth and is primarily responsible for making the remembrance a national holiday, was in attendance.

Shelton is excited to be working on her latest project, her first book of prose, which reads like a memoir.

“It’s called, ‘No One Is Coming To Save You’,” she said. “It’s a call to action for those of us who are quirky and weird to leverage that to essentially save ourselves.” She considers this prose to be much lighter in content than her poetry collections.

Shelton feels blessed to be surrounded by supporting friends and family. Her parents are her foundation; they never told her she had any limits. She lovingly reported that she has never looked to her left or right when she was performing and not seen them in the audience. She also credits her best friends, Jasmine Moultrie and Alfred Rucker, who have encouraged her that you can live the life of your dreams and create whatever God puts on your heart and mind. Just get after it and you’ll get it done.