By Peter Osborne
It was 2011, and Ivan Thomas found himself fighting depression and spending time in a Buddhist temple in Philadelphia. A woman walked up to him and asked if he understood the “power of pictures,” of his ability to “change behavior in 1/16th of a second.”
So “Big Ive” started taking pictures and looking at them, feeling what he calls their “still energy.”
That simple exchange got him off a path of negativity and made it possible to survive 2012, when he’d have to deal with losing his business, his home, his father (to cancer), and the premature birth of his daughter (1 pound, 3 ounces, but she’s fine now).
On the other hand, it was also the year he met Tim Fontaine, a Philadelphia cinematographer, who brought structure to his filming and taught him to be more cinematic.
“I started helping with scripts and working behind the camera,” said Thomas. “I fell in love with editing and saved the money to buy my first camera. And I created a website to inspire parents with premature babies.”
“He’s grown tremendously,” said Fontaine. “He started shooting everything and is relentless with DETV. The product always comes first. He’s a strong dedicated media producer AND a good guy.”
All that is a big change from his pre-Buddhist temple experience. Born and raised in the Southbridge neighborhood of Wilmington, Thomas said he “started to despise Wilmington and saw “an imaginary line between white and black, with nothing to bring Wilmington together.”
He’s done a full 360 and is now seen as one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders through DETV. His 2016 Running Man Challenge where Wilmington police danced down Market Street drew 30,000 YouTube views. And he hopes to receive approval later this month from the Wilmington City Council month to take over the city’s public access TV station, Channel 28 (see page 14).
The 43-year-old Thomas, who’s married with two children and lives in Newark, has created a website — DeTVCh.com (100 percent Positive News) and a YouTube channel — DETV302 that supports his effort to “change the narrative.” He also co-hosts The Wilmington Show, an #ItsTimeWilmDE web program with Zach Phillips, founder of Short Order Productions.
“I give away DETV for free, but people began hiring me to do campaigns and projects because they knew I have a following,” he said, noting that he worked with Lisa Blunt Rochester on her congressional campaign and Matt Meyer on his New Castle County Executive campaign. He also hosts The Wilmington Show for the city.
Thomas said his advice for young people centers on demonstrating hustle and grit. With that in mind, he said a former employer made a huge difference in his life.
“As I was first trying to build this, my wife told me I’ve got to go get a ‘real’ job,” he said with a smile. “So I went to work for a Rent-a-Center like place down on Kirkwood Highway and after a few weeks, the owner called me in and said, ‘you’re amazing with social media and it’s wrong for me to keep you here. I need you to go make DETV work.’ He was firing me but did it in a very nice way.”
Thomas said life is different today and is driven by his mantra of #WeAreLove.
“I get paid well to get up in the morning and come down to my basement to play. I’ll turn on the computer and it’s ‘go time,’ Thomas said. “I’ve found that my basement (and events we’ve done) has become Ground Zero for some really powerful people” like Ashley Biden, Kerri Evelyn Harris, Ajit George of Ted Talks, celebrity chef Dana Herbert, C. Brian Williams (founder of Step Africa), and Joseph Richmond of the Delaware Blue Coats.
As for that line between white and black in Wilmington, Thomas thinks it’s blurring.
“There’s a circle where it seems like everyone wants to see everyone win,” he says. “There are more mixed couples at happy hours. I teach a Film and Positive Media class at Kuumba Charter School, and when I ask the students what they watch, they talk about the Disney Channel and the number of interracial relationships. And we’re seeing a lot of young women getting elected. They’re sticking together and they don’t seem to care about color.”