Peace Activist Ken Nwadike

Peace Activist Ken Nwadike Visits Campus

Ken Nwadike, founder of the Free Hugs Project and peace activist, spoke to Monmouth University students and employees at Pollak Theare, recounting his story of becoming a motivational speaker.

The Free Hugs Project is a non-profit organization, founded by Nwadike, following his response to the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.

“While viewing the devastation of the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon, I was determined to be a participant in the next race,” said Nwadike. “I failed to qualify by just 23 seconds, so I decided to attend the event in a different way. I provided free hugs to runners as encouragement along the route.”

The video was uploaded to YouTube and Nwadike made national headlines. According to the Free Hugs Project website, his videos have garnered 150 million views and he has been a guest on CNN, USA Today, BBC News, Good Morning America and Good Morning Britain. In addition, he has featured in The Huffington Post, The New York Times, and The Washington Globe.

Nwadike played one of the viral videos and the audience of approximately 50 attendees burst into smiles. “All that mattered was the love,” said Nwadike, as complete strangers were running up to give him hugs.

Nwadike, however, had a change of heart. He felt that running races was getting redundant. “I wanted to inspire love in a place full of hate,” he said, and decided to go to the front lines of violence during protests, riots, and political rallies to spread peace and love, including the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Nwadike played a clip of another viral video that displayed him standing in between police and protesters in Charlottesville. Speaking to a group of protestors, Nwadike said, “I see [police officers] as human beings, just like I see everybody on this side as human beings. We’re all human. This man’s uniform doesn’t make him a robot, just like your uniform, your skin color, doesn’t make you a criminal.”

What followed was not peace, but a line of civil communication opened between protestors and officers. “It’s about motivating one another to find a common ground,” said Nwadike.

“I loved his whole attitude,” said Eleanor Novek Ph.D., a communication professor who teaches the course “Creating a Culture of Peace.” “It’s important, in a time of great political division where people aren’t listening to one another, it’s really important for people to be able to see each other as human beings and give each other a hug. Or at least listen to what each other have to say.”

“People like Ken reinforce my belief that anyone can have impact and influence if they step out of their comfort zone and are committed,” said Claude Taylor, an Advisor-in-Residence for Academic Transition and Inclusion at Monmouth, who was in attendance.

“I am a strong supporter of civil discourse as a means to bridge differences,” Taylor added.  “However, there is an unreconciled legacy of racial oppression in the United States and it is sometimes very difficult to clearly identify the pathways all people, not just racial minorities, must pursue that will lead to peace.”

Much like his hero, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nwadike had to work his way to the top. “I didn’t trust police officers at a young age,” he said.

 At eight years old, he witnessed police rush his house and arrest his father for an “illegal activity” of which he would, respectively, not elaborate on. Shortly after, his mother moved him and his four siblings to LA.

Moving in and out of homeless shelters, Nwadike was recruited by his high school track coach to try out for the team. “He used to tell me you can run away from homelessness right now,” said Nwadike, and he debuted with a 4:17 mile in his first race. He would later receive a full ride to college, sign a professional deal with Nike, and train for the Olympics.

“I have found Ken to be a very inspirational guy,” said University President Grey Dimenna, Esq. “Giving back to me is so important, particularly when you have benefitted from someone or a particular program. Ken being homeless for much of his life was perfectly situated to work with homeless kids. When you have walked the walk, you can be a much more powerful mentor and spokesperson.”

Nwadike would eventually become a mentor for children in homeless shelters where he promised the kids he would raise money for them by organizing a marathon on Hollywood Blvd – police told him it would cost $500,000 to shut down the famous road. Refusing to let the children down, Nwadike turned to the media and following an interview with CNBC, raised the money for what is now known as the Hollywood Half Marathon.

The presentation concluded with a question and answer session and Nwadike handing out t-shirts to those who asked questions. Projected on the screen was one of Nwadike’s signature quotes – “Encouraging opposite sides to respect each other as human beings is a major step towards peace.”

After the event ended, Novek said that Nwadike stayed to have conversations with attendees, as well as giving them hugs.

“[The event] made my day, made my weekend,” Novek added. “It was wonderful. I loved his whole attitude. I looked at him on videos and he’s wading into a crowd with cops and shields and everything, and he’s this little skinny guy in a t-shirt and a pair of old jeans, and the protestors are yelling at him, the Nazis are yelling at him, and he’s just trying to say ‘I’m listening to you, I respect you, I love you as a human being’. It was just so uplifting.”

“I absolutely loved this event,” said Natalie Toro, a senior biology student who attended the speech after Nwadike approached her in the Student Center and told her about it. “I love the idea of promoting peace and love around the world, and his projcet was absolutely inspiring to me. I would love to be a part of his project someday.”

“I told [Nwadike] personally after the show that he is doing great work and he is what our country needs right now,” Dimenna added. “There are too many people who don’t communicate with people they disagree with, and instead of listening and reasoning they are screaming and threatening each other. Ken understands the need for both sides to communicate.”

PHOTO COURTESY of Natalie Toro