Stanley Steppes documents people's sharing spirit through the video lens

In the "Eye Opener" episode of "Blue Daze," a YouTube-only reality show on the Kalamazoo Public Safety Department, two officers are talking about responding to suicides.

Officer Amir Khillah tells of chasing a man, reported to be suicidal, into a cemetery. Khillah comforted him there for an hour past his shift, holding his hand and convincing him to go to Borgess Hospital. 

The other officer, Ondreya Townsend, says she'd arrived too late to find a man with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head in Milham Park.

Townsend's experience had happened just that morning. She worries that it had not hit her like she thought it would. Khillah tells her that he'd had the same experience with himself, "spaced out" after responding to a violent death case. "Make sure that you talk to somebody," he tells her.

It's the kind of honest, intimate and hard-hitting scene that any documentarian craves, but doesn't often get. 

It's not easy getting people to open up with a microphone or camera pointed at them. But Stanley Steppes advises, "Hey, just do it. Keep asking until you get what you want. Some people make it easy, though." 

Steppes has been developing, on his own, a documentary style meant to inspire the Kalamazoo community. Now, he hopes to reach the world: He plans to launch his IMEEDIA streaming documentary channel in March. 

He's got episodes of two series people can see now on IMEEDIA's YouTube channel: "Blue Daze" and "REO-Life."

"I try my best to create content, programming, and material that I feel will move people forward," Steppes says. "I truly believe that each person is born with a purpose, and I think it's a shame for individuals to go through their lives to not know what it is. Or, on the other side of it, to know what it is but be afraid or apprehensive to pursue their dreams and their goals."

From entrepreneur to educator

Steppes was born 33 years ago in Kalamazoo. He grew up on the eastside where he became an entrepreneur as a nine-year-old shining shoes at the local barber shop. 

In high school, he interned at Raymond James. "That opened up a whole new world for me." He became licensed as a financial advisor just before he turned 21. Steppes spent 15 years in the financial industry.

"I didn't fit because I wasn't the salesman type. I was more passionate about going out there and teaching people, and not just for the sake of saving money and having a nest-egg, but to live your life. What are you here for, what's your purpose, what drives you?" 

In 2012, Steppes started his own financial education company, Money Smart Kids, to educate students in local schools. He also wrote a children's book on teaching kids about money, based on himself and his son, "Christian and Daddy Go Shopping." (His educational work was profiled in Second Wave in 2014. 

That was when he invested in professional video equipment and began producing educational videos. "I didn't know what I was doing," Steppes admits. He started working with a "kid correspondent," 13-year-old Jeremiah Griffin. "And he's looking at me holding the camera, going 'what is this guy doing?'" Steppes laughs.

Griffin ended up teaching Steppes how to work the camera. Steppes took it from there, teaching himself the styles of a documentarian.

Steppes is still "learning as I go," squeezing in film time while pursuing an elementary education degree as a full-time Western Michigan University student, working full-time at PNC Bank, and taking care of his family.

Sharing personalities

Steppes is looking to capture real people being real -- that sounds like the hype one might get from any reality show production, but he insists he never wants to dramatize or manipulate what appears in front of his camera.

"I've been blessed with getting these personalities who are willing to share."

Last August he went to KPS with a different form of "Cops" in mind. He didn't want anything like the sensationalized cops-and-robbers type of action. "Let's capture the stories of officers, get to know who these people are, instead of each episode (being about) let's bust-up some criminals." 

Deputy Chief Donald Webster told him "You're going to be riding with Khillah." Steppes thought, "Killa...? I wondered how in the world did this guy get the nickname... I was a little apprehensive, and it was an unknown for both of us. But he warmed up after a bit." 

He followed Khillah from a stop where the officer calmly dealt with a very intoxicated man on a neighborhood sidewalk, to martial arts school Lightning Kicks ( Khillah has run the Edison neighborhood dojo as Master Amir since long before joining public safety. Steppes shot emotional interviews with Khillah's students, one saying "I'd take a bullet for the man." The school is like family, students say, a family that also includes at-risk youth who get training for free.

Jeremy Cole, star of the series REO Life
In "REO-Life," Steppes found ways to make the dry world of real estate, renovation and house-flipping more compelling. It mostly follows real estate developer Jeremy Cole, who Second Wave met in January. He put Cole on camera, letting him reveal his very enthusiastic personality, and talk about his life and methods of real estate investing.

There seems to be a theme running through the stories Steppes captures. Cole gives away his real estate know-how, for the camera and for monthly "Property Krawls" where, for free, he shows investment hopefuls how to turn around run-down houses. Khillah also has the same openness, in showing what it's like to be a Kalamazoo PSO, and in teaching martial arts to at-risk youth.

As an entrepreneur, Steppes has the same sharing spirit. "I truly believe that if you're living a life of purpose, that you're meant to live, that there is no competition," he says. "The more people that are making life better for themselves and the people around them, we're all going to do much better."

It's all about being, as he calls himself, a "social entrepreneur." Steppes hopes to make a living from his plan to make IMEEDIA into an inspiring form of Netflix, but he's also looking to inspire the Kalamazoo community and beyond.
He's learned that "everyone has a story to share. Everyone. And I think we'll all do better and be better as a community and a society if we take time to listen to what others have to say."

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist working out of southwest Michigan since 1992. For more information visit his website
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