Free Hugs

More Than Just Hugs: Ken Nwadike and his Message of Peace

As Americans, we are living in one of the most polarizing times in our history, not only politically, but idealistically as well. From the riots that sparked since the Trayvon Martin case to rallies preaching hate and white supremacy in Charlottesville, one could easily say that we in dire need for deeper discussions of peace and understanding.

This is a difficult task, however motivational speaker and activist Ken Nwadike’s approach to starting those meaningful conversations has inspired the country for the past four years. His movement “Free Hugs” is more than just the iconic t-shirt that Nwadike wears to the events he attends- it’s the title of his movement and message that he spreads to others, young and old, across the country.

Ken Nwadike brought his inspirational message to Monmouth University students and faculty on Jan. 30 at Pollak Theatre. Nwadike began his charitable work years prior in California, where he lived since the early 1990s. His experience with extreme polarization and hardship early in life due to homelessness made Nwadike very withdrawn as person, stating that in high school he wouldn’t interact and participate in much.

His life changed for the better with help from his high school track coach who told him that he has the power to “run from all the challenges he faced, towards his goal to a better life.” In a literal sense, Nwadike did end up running as a part of his high school track team, completing his first competitive mile ever in just under four and a half minutes.

Nwadike’s life went upward from there, from being scouted by colleges, to full-ride scholarships, to becoming a spokesperson for Nike. He was on his way to the 2008 Olympics, when he realized that he could take his new found notoriety and give back to others who were in the same situation as he was when he was a youth.

He used his charitable character to speak and motivate youth who lived in homeless shelters and used his incredible talent of running to inspire his first movement, the Hollywood Half Marathon, an annual event that brings awareness to homeless youth in Los Angeles.

Claude Taylor, Advisor-in-Residence for Academic Transition and Inclusion said, “I thought it was a powerful depiction of an inclusive way to address social justice issues.  I worry that it is vulnerable to being trivialized, but overall it is a force for good in a world of conflict and misunderstanding.”

In only the second year of the marathon, the Boston Marathon bombings occurred and it struck a chord with Nwadike. From then on, he started training to run in the marathon for the next year, however he had just came short of the qualifying times. Instead, he decided to wear a t-shirt that said “Free Hugs” and attend the marathon with that intention, in order to spread positivity and light for an event that became very somber the year before. His seemingly trivial yet benign gesture became a viral hit- and from then on he was known as the “Free Hugs guy.”

But Nwadike did not stop there; he attended more marathons after the 2014 Boston Marathon, however he wanted do more with his message. He branched out more to places in which there was a state of unrest, and used the gesture written on his t-shirt to spark positive human interaction and meaningful conversation. He stated that “people aren’t stepping out of their comfort zones in order to spread happiness in the world,” a sentiment that resonated with those who attended the event.

Andie Mai, a sophomore economics, finance, and business student said, “I feel that Ken Nwadike had a very strong push for peaceful protest and spreading a love message to all that you come in contact with. I feel that his selfless and humble attitude were very inspiring for people of all ages.”

She continues, “From his words and actions alone, I could tell that he was a student of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before he told us. You could see that all those in attendance were affected in some way by his words or the pieces that he showed us in his own presentation. Knowing the social climate that we are in today, it was refreshing and necessary to hear someone speak of hope and compassion rather than despair and hate.”

Natalie Toro, a senior biology student said, “The change in our political and social climate starts with us. I felt inspired by Ken Nwadike’s message and I hope others will take his words and do great things with it- I know I will!”

As young members of this generation, we harness the power of fostering these meaningful dialogues with others, especially those who have different opinions than us. It is from this that we can help create a better world, the one of peace that Nwadike advocates so strongly for. From his travels, he’s encountered brute force from those who are conservative minded, as well as liberal minded.

He described an experience in Charlotte, North Carolina, during the protests in 2016 in which he was initially well received by the protesters but as soon as he hugged a police officer, he was seen as a “traitor” and had objects, hateful words and threats thrown at him by the same protesters. He told them that one person cannot determine character of an entire group; just because one black person has done something bad it does not define the actions of all black people and same with cops, or any other group.

It is difficult to put aside one’s own biases to listen to the opinions of others, however, Nwadike’s core mission is this and by visiting Monmouth’s campus, he’s sparked the minds of those who attended, to spread peace to others.

PHOTO TAKEN by Nicole Riddle