Imagine being in the middle of a wave of protesting civilians and armored up officers during a giant rally. This is exactly what Ken E. Nwadike Jr. does when he travels across the United States in an effort to bring love and peace to situations of conflict.
Nwadike, known as “The Free Hugs Guy” on social media, came to the Strafford Room of the Memorial Union Building (MUB) as a part of the MUB Current Issue Lecture Series on the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 22, to discuss how he manages to de-escalate violence during protests, riots and political rallies. However, Nwadike didn’t start his journey of spreading love and inspiring change by going to protests and rallies; it all started by overcoming homelessness and insecurities.
Nwadike’s first encounter with law enforcement was when he was 8 years old and his father was abruptly arrested in front of him. As a result, Nwadike and his four siblings went with his mother to go live in Los Angeles. From then on, the Nwadikes were in and out of homeless shelters.
“It really takes a toll on your personality,” Nwadike said in reference to his insecurities during his childhood. Growing up, he was a shy student who constantly had his head to the ground. He dreaded hearing the sound of the school bell that signaled a return to the homeless shelter that was serving as their current place of residence.
It wasn’t until his school’s track coach noticed that Nwadike was constantly looking at the ground that he stopped and talked to him. Upon hearing his story, the coach told Nwadike to come and meet the track team; it was there that he found a place where he felt like he belonged. The support that he received in school from his coaches, teammates, friends and family was the driving force behind his path to start his organizations that help homeless teens.
After high school, Nwadike went to college on a track scholarship, and even received a sponsorship from Nike. Soon after, the track star began training for the Olympics, with his mile time being 4 minutes. Yet, that motivation Nwadike received in high school was still with him and he needed to do something with all of it. In 2011, he decided on organizing a half marathon, the Hollywood Half Marathon, in an effort to raise money for local homeless shelters.
According to him, the half marathon wasn’t easy to organize, and at first no government or law officials were willing to close down the streets for it. Yet, numerous news and media outlets picked up the story and soon celebrities were even talking about it. Public interest picked up fast and eventually there were 10,000 runners and just shy of one million dollars had been raised. Nwadike then played a clip of the news coverage of the first Hollywood Half Marathon. The race is still held annually during the first week of April.
Upon turning the discussion on how he started up the Free Hugs Project, Nwadike addressed the crowd by asking, “What if I am able to use love as a tool to de-escalate violence?”
“My wife said ‘Who’s going to hug a random guy on the side of a race?’ And with that I went to the Boston Marathon and recorded myself standing on the sidelines, holding up a sign that read ‘Free Hugs,’” Nwadike said.
He then showed his third video clip of the evening, where he was at the marathon a year after the Boston Marathon Bombing. Runners came up to him, eager to hug him, then continued running the race with huge grins across their face.
Since then, Nwadike has been traveling the nation, trying to spread the message and with that, the Free Hugs Project has been growing, becoming more popular.
“The world needs more love, and I wanted to learn about the Free Hugs Project so that I could help spread the message,” said senior occupational therapy major Rebecca Bassi.
“I really resonate with his philosophy in life,” said senior environmental conservation and sustainability major Daryn Clevesy.
Nwadike ended his visit to the university with a question and answer session that ended up lasting longer than the hour-long lecture itself. One attendee asked Nwadike how he feels about going into dangerous situations, knowing that he could get hurt; he remarked that this particular question stood out to him.
“When you feel called to do something, you can’t let fear stop you. Whether you support Trump or are anti-Trump, we aren’t to get the justice we want in the world by destroying things,” Nwadike said while referencing the recent presidential inauguration.
“I’m just one person, but I am a person with a voice,” he said while answering one of the last questions of the night.
Even after the questions stopped, Nwadike stayed after, hugging the dozens of students who stayed behind afterward, taking pictures with them as well as taking a moment to interact and answer any questions they may have had. Practically no one left the Strafford Room that evening without a smile on their face.