On Jan. 14 Ken Nwadike Jr., founder of the Free Hugs Project, delivered a speech to University of Redlands in the Orton Center. The Free Hugs Project is a non-violent movement aimed at bringing awareness to social issues and encouraging change through promoting love.
In his speech, Nwadike was inspirational and approachable. The relaxed and humorous demeanor he held while telling his personal story, cultivated an atmosphere of heartfelt-openness and intimacy. With advice such as “don’t wait for a leader, become one,” and “walk in your purpose.”
Commonly know as the “Free Hugs Guy,” Nwadike is a peace activist, documentary film maker, and motivational speaker. His work has caught the attention of millions of viewers and has been featured on publications such as CNN, The Huffington Post, BBC News, The New York Times, and many others. He has attended numerous rallies and riots in an effort to deescalate tensions, including the Charlotte, NC riots of 2016. On top of this, he travels around the country giving motivational speeches to students and businesses. While his activism covers a range of social justice issues such as race and class inequality, the message of the project is about the approach to controversial matters, rather than specific circumstances. Nwadike’s focus is to humanize individuals, encouraging people not to spread more hate, but to respect each other as human beings in an effort for peace.
Nwadike’s first involvement with the police happened at age eight when his father was arrested during a police raid, leaving him with a negative impression of cops. He learned to interpret experiences of fear and pain in a non-violent way through his mother teaching him about Martin Luther King Jr., while immersed in the LA riots of 1992. During high school, he was living in a homeless shelter with his family when he discovered his love for running. His success in the sport later lead him to sign with Nike and begin training for the 2008 Olympics. He used his fortunate position to found the Hollywood Half Marathon as a way to raise funds and bring awareness to homeless youth, some of whom he mentored. Nwadike responded to the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013 by offering free hugs on the sideline the following year; the video footage ended up going viral and ultimately sparked the Free Hugs Project.
As a social activist, Nwadike and his team have been on the front lines of rallies and riots gaining first hand experience of the emotional turmoil that is cultivated in those settings. When asked how he deals with the intensity of these situations, Nwadike responded, “I don’t allow my fears to block out my purpose.” Mark Jones, who is part of Nwadike’s team and has attended many of the rallies, offers this advice:
“You have to go out with your mission in mind … Perfect love casts out fear, and when you walk in that type of love, fear really doesn’t have a hold on you; it emboldens you to do things that you would never really do.”
Despite his gentle disposition, Nwadike is aware that the issues he is trying to confront are difficult and personal. It may not be easy for some people to approach controversy with the same softness that he does. When this is the case, he believes it is important to remember that “people who are hurting have a tendency to hurt other people.”
“When you can deal with your own issues internally, you can be a better helper for other people. Work through those things and then try and figure out ways to impact others,” Nwadike said.
His goal for the Free Hugs Project is to get to a place where people understand the message he is trying to convey and approach social justice issues from a place of love, in an effort to create change through meaningful conversation. To Nwadike, the Free Hug Project is a reminder for people to be good to one another; it is an “opportunity for people to come together and share [a] moment of love.” Most importantly, Nwadike sees the project as a tool to deescalate situations and mediate the dialogue people have on the front lines of activism.
“Sometimes I struggle with [questions like], ‘Do people really understand the message? Do they think it’s something as simple as just a hug, an embrace?’” For him, it is about finding a way to diminish violence and allow people come to a place that enables them to have a conversation. “I hope that people will realize it’s not just a physical hug that the message is promoting.” In essence, he is aiming to be an example of love.
In spite of the conflict he has witnessed, he still believes that everyone is capable of approaching these difficult situations with love, and for now, he believes that is enough. “I think that it should be enough until we reach that point. I don’t think we have reached that point yet where people are even willing to treat one another in [a respectable] way.”
Photograph by Hannah Sobel.