Kalamazoo to say goodbye to poet and motivational speaker, Kirk Latimer, in Sunday memorial

"You fought your battles while helping others fight theirs. You made a difference more than you could ever know. You gave a voice to those without one and helped so many youths." -- A social media tribute to the late Kirk Latimer

Some stories write themselves. This is not one of those stories.

On Sept. 9 Kirk Latimer, the co-founder and Education Director of Speak It Forward died after a brief illness. He will be remembered in a memorial event Sunday, Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Arcadia Festival site. Please wear masks and observe personal distancing. 

The 45 words in the preceding paragraph are straightforward — and they in no way communicate the keen personal loss experienced by so many in the Kalamazoo area and beyond at the news of Kirk Latimer's death. 

He was one-half of a poetic duo that turned words into a duet, speaking truths without cliche and changing lives in the process. Together with Gabriel Giron as Kinetic Affect the two took the raw material of life and crafted something uniquely their own, art that moved hearts and moved people to their feet in a standing ovation or two. 

Kirk in 2020.Their repertoire, built over 14 years together, includes poems for high schools, colleges and universities, major corporations, nonprofits, and foundations. One is even about the State of Michigan. Together they were contestants on the television show America’s Got Talent and Amateur Night at The Apollo. 

Becoming motivational speakers came about almost by accident, Giron says as he reflects on their work together. When Kinetic Affect first began to be asked to speak before others they would prepare a dozen poems with little stories connecting them. When they found audiences resonated as deeply with their stories as their poems the number of poems went down and the motivational material went up.

Their work in Speak It Foward took them into schools and juvenile detention facilities where they taught young people to speak their emotions through art.

Those emotions are on display in the tributes to Latimer posted on social media. And there is a common theme. He helped people when they were at their lowest point, in a dark place, when they needed someone to let them know they were important to this world. 

One tribute captured how he made a difference. "You were a person God allowed to cross my path at one of the most difficult times in life. It was the way you lived life and decided to be unapologetically you that would let me know being different was okay for me, too. There was a tangible power exemplified in your speech, your presence carried weight, and your fearlessness transcended beyond bounds."

Onstage at Portage Northern High School in 2015.He inspired and encouraged many. "He was not only my teacher but he encouraged me to write my book...he taught me my very first English words. He was an exemplary human being. Man, you had a beautiful heart and soul," another tribute says.

He was a high school English teacher in Portage Northern before taking what most would consider a risky plunge into poetry as a full-time career. Through his passion and contagious conviction to make it work, he and Giron built two businesses. 

The original plans of the two were to make sure that within five years they could survive with Kinetic Affect as a main source of income. They accomplished that with time to spare.

They went on to found Speak It Forward in 2009 and as Educational Director of the nonprofit, he led workshops for youth in treatment facilities, juvenile homes, and alternative high schools locally and across the country.
On Sept. 9 Kirk Latimer, the co-founder and Education Director of Speak It Forward died after a brief illness. He will be remembered in a memorial event Sunday, Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. at the Arcadia Festival site. Please wear masks and observe personal distancing.
Giron wants to make it clear the way was not always smooth for the two art entrepreneurs. As there would be in any relationship where they were close enough to finish one another's sentences -- Giron calls them the odd couple -- there were rough patches. But together they learned the meaning of collaboration. They often referred to one another as brother and were not afraid to share openly how much they loved one another. 

There were long, long days that went into making Kinetic Affect and Speak It Forward work. Especially in the early days, it was not uncommon for the two to be outdoors for hours speaking their poems until they had them down. Latimer's idea was that once you have performed in someplace uncomfortable like an outdoor setting where people don't expect you to be reciting poetry then performing on stage with people staring at you is much easier. Pushing into the uncomfortable was something he encouraged.

The work they had built up over 14 years was jeopardized in 2020 as all event- and school-based businesses were when people were asked to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19. Speaking engagements and contracts were canceled. And early this year, Lakeside, an important source of income for Speak It Forward and meaningful work with young people, closed after the death of a teen at the hands of staff. Together with the nonprofit's board of directors, Kirk and Gabe were sorting out what to do given the circumstances. 

Kirk and Gabe in 2014.One option on the table was to furlough their employee of four years, Ed Genesis. Neither Giron or Latimer wanted to pursue that option considering the contribution Genesis had made to the organization and how he had encouraged them to do more in the community. Instead, the co-founders proposed cutting their salaries and giving what they cut to Genesis so that the three of them would have equal pay. Rather than being laid off, Genesis would be made a co-director by a unanimous vote of the board. 

Latimer did not live to see the public announcement of Genesis' promotion to co-director.

With in-person events being canceled Giron and Latimer were working on other creative endeavors, including a YouTube project "Buddha and the Beast." Giron has made numerous trips to India to learn yoga from the experts and Latimer was a bodybuilder in his off-hours.

We Voted picture. Ed Genesis, Gabriel Giron, and Kirk Latimer of Speak It Forward.Kirk's bodybuilding persona sometimes led people to misunderstand him, Giron says. There are few who cared more for others or who were more generous. Giron recalls a story told by Latimer's sister in a video tribute to her brother. She recounted a time when they were at the hospital with their mother and Kirk had not arrived. He was seriously overdue. Why was he late? He had met a homeless man at a gas station and made sure the man had a ride and a meal before Kirk went to his family's side.

Latimer's son Ethan, Giron's 12-year-old godson, has already asked if he can come spend weekends in Kalamazoo with Giron as Ethan did with his father. And Giron has been impressed with the empathy the young man has shown, checking in with Giron to see how he is doing now that Kirk is gone. If all goes well, the two may have a poetic surprise at Sunday's memorial.

As one more tribute says: There are so many lessons to take away from this moment, but the loudest one is love. Always, all ways.

Speak it forward. 

Looking back

This story was difficult because Kirk Latimer was a friend and his death at 40 was a shock. Over the years, Second Wave has featured Latimer and Giron numerous times. Follow their history below. 

Studio 246 writes a new script

'The Michigan Poem' gets a warm response for Kinetic Affect

Lakeside Academy students' works come Out of the Shadows

The beautiful scars of Kinetic Affect bring healing to others

Pilot program offers a second chance for young people

The Big Event: Blood, Sweat and Tears competition moves into final round
Campaign launches to support Lakeside for Children
From a genesis in Gary to a nexus on the Northside: One rapper's artistic journey

Read more articles by Kathy Jennings.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.