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Portraits of Michigan

It’s more important to understand someone than to judge them. We think the first step to understanding someone is asking them the fundamental questions about who they are and how they became the person they are today. Understanding and empathy are essential building blocks for a better, more compassionate world. We’re incredibly fortunate to be able to ask these questions each week through our interview series. Below you’ll find inspiring interviews from in and around KC.

Tantzi Kuyers

When I was about 10 years old and discovered the macro feature on my grandma’s Minolta camera, I became obsessed with photographing flowers. I spent every summer at my family’s cottage in Northport, Michigan and our next-door neighbor had a big driveway island that was covered in different colored lilies. I’d spend hours with my face squished in the flowers capturing the flecks of pollen that had fallen on the pistils and petals. My grandmother always encouraged me to pursue photography, and when I was 12, she gifted me $50 to spend toward my first camera. That definitely where the love first started. Read more>>

Jonny Carroll

When it comes to the very beginning of my love for playing and writing music, there’s a moment in time that always emerges from my early memory. I was ten years old, and my parents had just reunited after a turbulent 4-year separation, leading us to move back into the familiarity of the house we had once called home and live together as a family. Having been apart from my dad during my parent’s separation and being so young, I didn’t know that my dad could sing and play guitar. I was sitting in my bedroom one night and heard music coming from the living room. Read more>>

Jae Davis

In 2013 it was brought to my attention that there was a shortage of internships in the entertainment industry. Being a part of the entertainment industry and seeing how there weren’t many opportunities to connect with the smaller and bigger businesses in entertainment, I took it upon myself to connect students with the companies I have connected with over the years and the years to come. After 3 years of building relationships with colleges and universities all across North America, InternsConnected was born in Spring 2016. Read more>>

Jehan Crump-Gibson

I am an entrepreneur and attorney by trade. I was imported to Detroit from Virginia during my childhood. I graduated from Michigan State University with dual bachelor of arts degrees in Political Science and English. Immediately after college, I attended Wayne State University Law School and graduated with my Juris Doctorate. I had BIG plans upon graduation…until the bottom of the economy fell out. Potential employers were either rescinding offers, deferring them, or not making them at all. Read more>>

Betsy Sneller

I’ve always been an extrovert and love getting to know people. In college, I discovered there was a field (sociolinguistics) that would let me combine my love of people with my love of language and analysis. I’m now a professor at Michigan State, where I get to teach and do sociolinguistic research. On a basic level, this means that I analyze how people use language to express their identity, and how language is shaped by social factors and changes over time. My latest project (MI Diaries) has been collecting audio diaries from Michiganders throughout the pandemic and beyond, starting in April of 2020. Read more>>

Baby Eros

I started playing guitar when I was 9 years old, I used to spend hours trying to figure out songs I liked. Over time I started to find a lot of therapy in playing music by myself; it really helped me connect the dots when my head didn’t make sense. My ADHD has always been difficult to work with, but when I’m making music, I feel like it’s the only time I’m able to set aside everything else and focus. More than anything I really enjoy the creative process; nothing excites me more than to experiment with an idea and have it explode into so much more. Read more>>

Ann Blakeslee

In October 2019, Eastern Michigan University’s Office of Campus & Community Writing, which I direct, reached out to the Ypsilanti District Library (YDL) and 826michigan with the idea of developing a community writing center. With its three branches situated in different locations and serving the distinct demographics of those locations, YDL provided the perfect physical setting for a community-based writing center. 826michigan, which already had successful writing programs for youth, became a natural partner for creating an entity to support writers of all ages. Read more>>

Mary Pellettieri

The idea came to me to make tonic water better when I was pregnant with my first son. I was avoiding drinking but put a lot due to my career as a brewery quality control manager. What does an adult drink at a bar when they can’t imbibe? My choice at the time, 20 years ago, was tonic water and a splash of OJ. I liked the slight bitterness. Yet the bargun tonic was so bad. I decided then and their soft drinks in bars have to be fixed. About 8 years ago, my partner and I started making tonic syrups for farm markets and bar programs. We started in Milwaukee and Chicago and have grown from there. Read more>>

Zenah Namari

Growing up all my friends and family would ask me to take pictures of them at events and outings, and that sparked my passion for photography and inspired me to pursue a career in this field. Yes and no, it’s a constant struggle to learn new techniques as you can never be perfect. I am a photographer; I specialize in portrait pictures. I am known for being friendly and professional! I am most proud of my growth in photography. What sets me apart from others is my willingness to constantly learn more about my craft. The most important lesson I have learned along my journey was to always stay positive and focus on quality over quantity. Read more>>

Tori Beavers

I’ve always been intrigued and inspired by Dr. Sebi. Dr. Sebi. Is an herbalist who dedicated over 30 years of his life to develop all these natural herbal products and cures for diseases. Being inspired is one thing and being dedicated is another. Growing up within my culture and environment healthy food was unthought of. I ate a lot of processed sugars, meat of all kinds, starches, dairy, and lived an overall unhealthy lifestyle. My family has a health history of diabetes. I truly believe that disease comes from your genetics, but it also comes from your family eating habits and environment. Read more>>

Jason Brown

Mid 2008, I was not happy with my job or career. Dealing with bad bosses, etc. and I decided instead of complaining to change the narrative, and in October 2008, I started PublicCity PR. When I told my wife a month or two before I launched the business, she was terrified at the idea. Told her I had no clients, no revenues going into the venture, but I thought my ‘concept’ was solid. Managing media relations for businesses at an affordable rate, given that I was, at that time, would be a solopreneur. We had a one-year-old daughter, Eliza, at the time so frankly, we were both a little nervous about the idea of me going off on my own for the first time. Read more>>

Matthew Elliott

The War Zone started in 2020 (just before shutdowns). We had many struggles to deal with right off the bat, but because what we were creating was fun and sustainable, we were able to make it through and begin to flourish. The biggest struggle was opening the business and then having to shut down just a couple weeks later. The War Zone is a Hi-Tech Nerf Arena built to simulate popular video games. We host private events and public open plays every week. We also offer an affordable membership program which lets people play every week for free and get big discounts on private events. Read more>>

Darlene Perkins

Mobile Laundry Detroit, Darlene Perkins, established Mobile Laundry Detroit to relieve people the stress associated with doing laundry. With understanding first-hand how important it is to delegate certain mundane tasks, to focus on what is most important. She has served in the community as a servant leader for over a decade. Serving with integrity and ensuring client satisfaction is what she embodies, and coaches to her team. Darlene’s family established laundry services on Detroit’s East Side back in the early ’90s – Concord Laundromat- to provide affordable and sometimes free services to a community in need. Read more>>

Matthew Hill

I have always had a love for movies, ever since I can remember. So, at Northern Michigan University, I found Digital Cinema. Since graduating, I have used my degree to build a wedding film business with my wife, Lauren, called Matthew Hill Creative. We love getting to be with our clients on one of the most important days of their lives. It is really special to get to tell someone’s love story and create something that they will have for the rest of their lives. While I love weddings, I knew that my skills in video could also be used in different ways. Read more>>

Sage Castleberry

I grew up in a very musical family. From the time I was very little I was all around music, as I would listen all the time at home and go watch my dad drum in shows. Once I got a little older, I started taking guitar lessons about the age of 10. I absolutely hated the lessons at first because it was so much work to learn an instrument, but I am so glad I pushed through and stuck with playing till this day. Like I stated I have been playing guitar since I was 10, I’m 23 now, but I didn’t join my first band until 2019. In 2019 I was in a band called “The Moonmen” with some high school friends. Read more>>

Dylan Daniels

Back in middle school, I started out creating 7-second amv (anime music videos) for vine. I was in love with video editing, still am. Eventually, I wanted to create my own songs to use in my amvs so I downloaded Fl studio on to my computer. However, it wouldn’t be until high school when my friends started rapping, I really decided to dive into to learning FL studio to make the beats because I couldn’t picture myself ever rapping. I ended up really enjoying the music-making process and even bought a mic so I could record songs as a JOKE but for I knew it, it became more deeper than and I became serious about my craft. Read more>>

S & S Event Rentals

We got started in the event/planning industry from taking a liking from putting together several small events for family and friends. We started out putting these events together working under the leadership of First Impression Events and Silver Garden Banquet Hall. We soon realized after working for others, we doing small things on our own we could soon take things to the next level! After several discussions amongst us, Shana gifted her business partner/friend Sparkle with a key inside of a card with the blessings for the brand S&S. Read more>>

Nydia GanjaClergy

I began my journey with cannabis at 14, a day after being introduced to cigarettes. It was an instant love affair. I chose a physical therapist career and committed myself to that for almost 16 years. It wasn’t until I fell sick and was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and discovered the endocannabinoid system that I began to consume and commune with cannabis differently. I realized the accountability for my health was at no one else feet but my own. I had a whole lifestyle I had to change to get really “healthy” once again. Once my perspective changed there, my life took a 180-degree turn. Read more>>

LaDajah Jackson

My name is LaDajah Jackson, and life has made me many things; I am a believer, a dog mom, a plant mom, a helper, a therapist, an influencer, and life coach. I was born and raised in the small city of Battle Creek, MI. Growing up was challenging for me. I grew up in a single-family household, and my mother often struggled to make ends meet. I knew early on, from the tender age of 7 years old that I was going to be the difference maker in my family. My mother always told me that I loved to help in the kitchen, help her take care of the family and that I’ve always been ambitious. Read more>>

Christina Islam

My journey began with a passion; Support silk farmers, embroiders and artisan women in many countries starting in Bangladesh, South Asia while providing our customers unique, indigenous-designed accessories and exquisite home décor. Earnings that the artisans received were used for their education and basic needs. I shared these beautiful designs with family and friends here in the states and received such an overwhelming response that gave me the opportunity to share the unique journey. Read more>>

Hannah Baiardi

Hannah discovered the piano at three years old and immediately began composing little melodies. Hannah started taking lessons from a young age and continued her writing. As an avid improviser, Hannah gravitated to jazz and pursued music in college at the University of Michigan. After college, Hannah was on a mission to unleash her true artist voice and sound. Hannah’s focus is on evoking powerful feelings and awakening deep-seated emotions in listeners through her evocative writing. Read more>>

Melena Strehlow and Noah Kohler

Noah and Melena met in Grand Rapids, MI in September 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic when dating was difficult to say the least. It is true that opposites attract for their story. Noah’s creative mind, carefree attitude, and willingness to jump right in paired with Melena’s drive for success, desire to leave an impact, and knack for details were just the match they needed to become successful as a couple as well as start Cooking for Comfort. Noah and Melena have each experienced their own traumas which have left them stronger while carrying the scars with them. Read more>>

Rebecca Casement

I am a Michigan artist currently living in Flint, but I grew up in rural central Michigan. My parents were very influential in my love for making, each informing different areas of my making. I often helped dad with building projects, and my mom encouraged me with learning to sew, garden, and arts/crafts projects. We were not well off, so did a lot of creative play outside and made things out of found objects. I wasn’t ever a traditional art kid. I loved making things and working with my hands, so I took home economics, woodshop, metal shop, and one art class. Read more>>

Kim Swain

As a child, I was really drawn to creative outlets; I loved taking photos, drawing Sailor Moon and animals, painting, and crafting. One of my favorite things to do when I had time to myself was sift through our huge boxes of old photos and try to imagine stories for all of the people in them. I started working in a portrait studio part-time around 2010. After a few years there I ended up with my own camera and became obsessed with nature and macro work. I started taking portraits of my own children, and family members soon after. I eventually quit there and wondered if I would be able to start my own business. Read more>>

Lilia Atkin

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved art. When I was little, I adored art class, and I would write picture books for my family. As I grew up, I got my first camera in middle school and I think it was a Nikon Coolpix. I took it everywhere with me and was always taking photos of my friends, my pets, and everything around me. My sophomore year of High School my parents bought me a Canon T6 Rebel for Christmas, and I remember I took it everywhere with me for over a year. At the end of my junior year of High School the young woman who was like a sister to me ever since the beginning of elementary school died. Read more>>

Naomi Trotto

My story starts when I was 6 and woke up with braids in my hair. I knew then that I was going to do hair; I also knew that I was meant for greatness and have lived and operated under that mindset my entire life. Fast forward through life’s challenges to 2004 when a friend of mine, myself, and my dad opened a salon! Bell Amore salon was born! We knew nothing of owning a business other than the advice and knowledge we had from working at businesses. So, we winged it hardcore; it was tough. Especially at the beginning, building something from the ground up means you start at the ground. Read more>>

Felicia Gilbreath

My story begins summer of 2019. Everything that could go wrong had went wrong, and I just was hoping for a break. A very good friend presented me with an opportunity to work a job cleaning theatres at night. That experience showed me that I actually enjoyed cleaning. This same friend passed my information to someone needing their house cleaned, and I took that on as well. Quickly I realized that I really love cleaning houses. The final result and feel is so calming. After about a year and picking up another consistent client, something in me said, “Give it a shot” I spent most of 2020 just thinking of a name lol, and even after I committed to a name, I was still nervous about putting myself out there. Read more>>

Timothy Hwang

My current “business” is freelance photography, but it didn’t always start that way. I started out as a videographer actually, though I was always interested in cameras since I was a little boy. I learned how to make videos at a summer academy at a church in Korea when I was in middle school. I was one of the younger students there, while most of the people there were adults (most of them were missionaries). I learned to make videos – such as how to use a camera, how to edit simple cuts, and how to construct good storytelling. Read more>>

Raven Barrett

Well, I’ll try to make a long story short: I became a mother and wanted to pay homage to the very woman who poured so much for their time and love into my life, my pregnancy, and now my daughter’s life. It was important to me to create something that was unique to the Black community, let alone Black mothers. The first thing I could think about was designing shirts that had Black mom lingos on it i.e., “Stay outta grown folk business.” From there, it evolved into shirts that empowered us, empowered our children, bodysuits that made us feel sexy as we adapt into our bodies as new mothers, to weekly conversations that promote growth within motherhood, womanhood, and Black culture, to now a podcast in the works. Read more>>

Madeline Hartner

I vividly remember picking up an old film camera my sophomore year of high school and how I immediately felt inspired and connected. I was fortunate enough to have an amazing photography program at my high school, and there I was introduced to the science behind the art of film photography. I was taught how to use a film camera, how to load the film, how to load the film onto a reel, develop that roll of film, then take it into a darkroom and use an enlarger and make prints using the different chemicals needed. I didn’t realize how much focus and patience this took to just capture and print a single image. Read more>>

Joni Starr

I had a life-changing experience in June of 2017 when I lost my husband to cancer. To try and manage the grief, I would take walks, and the walks became longer and outside of the city, deeper into nature, and nature became a healing element for me. (I ultimately traveled to Spain and walked 100 miles of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. I highly recommend it!) During this time, I discovered that it was important for me to make a life change in order to fully heal and move forward. I started a list of things that were important to me. Read more>>

Nono Otika

My journey in food started as a young child watching my mother cook up delicious traditional African meals in Sudan. I was always around her watching and learning while my dad complained, saying boys should not be in the kitchen. This fascination with food continued throughout my life, and eventually, my dad gave up complaining and embraced my passion as I became the go-to cook for all family events. I come from a large family of 9, and we can always count on food being the ultimate unifier as all our most joyous moments started from that kitchen table. Read more>>

Michaela Majava

That moment someone said to me, “I would have never guessed you have been through all what you have. You carry yourself so well.” is when I realized it’s not about what happens to you, but how you handle it and rise above. Leaving my marriage, I knew was going to be the hardest thing I ever had to do. I tried multiple times but always went back for the sake of the kids; being so brainwashed and numb to the actions, I had no capacity to comprehend how it was or would change my children. I had completely lost who I was after the years of traveling, never making friends because I would not be able to leave the house for weeks on end. Read more>>

James Thompson

I’ve always loved Detroit, even when I was as little as 5. When I could see downtown from far, it always felt right. Like I was meant to be born in Detroit. But the main reason why I lived Detroit, was its sunrises and sunsets. Just the way Sun made the sky to into beautiful reds and blues, it made me feel at peace. So, at the age of 11, I started to take pictures of those mornings and evenings. After a while, I started noticing Detroit’s beauty in her people and her community, so my mother gave me my first Camera, which was a regular small camera made for family events, but I did what I could. Read more>>

Anthony Rassam

My name is Anthony Rassam, but some people know me by the alias ‘sxrreal.’ I’m an editorial and conceptual portrait photographer creating in Detroit, Michigan. I initially began photography to create my own references for drawing and painting portraits of people I know in a surrealistic approach. At that point, I’ve been creating art for 5 years, and I was beginning to learn new creative skills like screen-printing, graphic design (my main focus), and the newest skill which was photography. As soon as I learned how my camera worked, I fell in love with being able to instantly capture the way I see the world in my everyday life. Read more>>

Janelle Kloske

I have been an Occupational Therapist since 2006. Until recently, I considered myself a “General Practitioner.” I could work in any setting with any population. I realized early on in grad school that I was very interested in complementary and alternative therapies, also known as CAM. Over the years, I acquired training in several areas of alternative healing modalities such as Thai Massage, Reiki healing, Reflexology, mindfulness, and yoga and incorporated those skills into the traditional clinical settings that I worked in. It was always very well received, and I saw great outcomes with my clients. Read more>>

Emanuel Terrell

Piedmont Blue was created in April 2017. I went to school and graduated with my Bachelor’s of Science in Film and Media studies from Eastern Michigan University. From broadcasting my own radio show on campus, creating and editing videos, to writing and producing television scripts, I really enjoyed learning behind the scenes of the entertainment industry; I always struggled to find my passions because I always excelled in schoolwork, and it wasn’t until I took my first Film Appreciation class my freshman year of college where it all clicked. Read more>>

Jen Vanee

After graduating college at the height of the 08′ recession with a degree in Communications/Business, I found myself ready to go while the rest of the people in my industry were losing their jobs. I started saving money and planned to move to Chicago in the fall of 2011, where I knew there would be more opportunities for a communications professional like myself. However, that summer I was hired for an in-house marketing position with a family-owned commercial real estate and private equity firm where I ended up wearing many hats. Read more>>

Jessica Blitchok

Our dream of owning a Upick farm has been in the back of our minds for years. We kept it tucked away as a plan for when we retired. The dream fired up more when our daughter was invited to LA for a talent scouting trip in 2016. Her and I grew flowers the following summer with the intent to fundraise and sell bouquets to help pay for her trip. We were overcome by not only the support in our community but the true love and joy that flowers brought to so many people. It was amazing how many people would stop to chat and tell you a detailed story about their time growing up and the flowers they picked with their grandma. Read more>>

Yolanda Taylor

I was born in Chicago, then moved to Detroit just before I turned 4yrs old; growing up on the Eastside of Detroit, this move, unfortunately, resulted in my family and I witnessing the killing of my father by the police. This was of course, very traumatic and was captured on national news, with the horrific images being released in newspapers, magazines, etc. One thing I can remember about my parents, family, and childhood is the music, fashion, and entrepreneurship. The women cooked and were dressed, and the men were dressed with clean with fly cars! Read more>>

LaTonya Shade

My partner, Kels Perry, and I were working for the United States Post Office at the time. We happen to be working together out of one truck, and we began to discuss generational wealth. We discussed real estate, stocks, and entrepreneurship. I (LaTonya Shade) use to sell t-shirts and stopped due to several reasons. Kels encouraged me to pick it back up. That’s how we became partners and created Premium Billi. Premium Billi is not only a luxury Streetwear brand but we carry a strong message, “One Bill 2A Billion.” Read more>>

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