The University of Indianapolis hosted Ken Nwadike, founder of the Free Hugs Project, on Sept. 11 in a nearly full UIndy Hall. According to the Free Hugs Project website, freehugsproject.com, Nwadike is a peace activist, inspirational speaker and video journalist. He travels the country promoting peace and equality by giving out free hugs. While at UIndy Nwadike spoke about his journey and project.
Nwadike grew up in and out of homeless shelters in California, with his mother and four siblings. During his speech, Nwadike said he had trouble trusting his peers and finding his place in school, until he reached high school and was invited to join the track team. He said he shocked the community by running the first mile of his life in just over four minutes. His life turned around as he was invited to run in college and was soon picked up and sponsored by Nike. Nwadike said he felt that it was his responsibility to pay it forward, so he began to sponsor events such as the Hollywood Half-Marathon to raise money for children growing up in homeless shelters. Just a few days after his first Hollywood Half-Marathon, he and his friends witnessed the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Nwadike vowed to qualify for the marathon the following year to run and promote peace, although he did not. Nwadike said he decided to promote peace in a different way while attending the Boston Marathon, and the Free Hugs Project was created.
While at the Boston Marathon, Nwadike created a video in which he stood on the sidelines wearing a shirt and holding a sign labeled “Free Hugs.” He said he was in awe of the response his video got and soon began looking at the bigger picture in peace advocacy. Rather than uploading more “feel-good” videos to garner attention, Nwadike decided to start going into areas of conflict with a message of peace and love. He said he endured violent situations at the front lines of rallies and other events, such as the Trump Inauguration and Charlottesville, by himself or with his brother.
“I usually say a prayer before I go into those situations, to be a light sometimes in dark places,” Nwadike said, “and just knowing that if I work effectively on the front lines and in the midst of such chaos that I can come out of there being able to inspire people.”
According to the Free Hugs Project’s website, Nwadike soon began to inspire many people across the country. He now visits the front lines of violent rallies and protests and speaks frequently at high schools and colleges.
The target audience for Nwadike’s motivational speeches is students in high school and college, according to the Free Hugs Project’s website. Nwadike has spoken at hundreds of schools and universities, to spread his message about changing the world with peace rather than violence, but he said that UIndy was a bit different.
“You guys were all about love in here,” Nwadike said. “I mean some of the things that people shared with me in here today about their personal relationships—it was such a unique experience.”
Freshman pre-art therapy major Ruth Satchell attended the event. She said she did not know much about Nwadike or the event but learned a lot more about peaceful protests.
“I learned about how to approach violent situations in a better way,” Satchell said, “and about how to use the experiences that he told us about and apply them to experiences that I might have here on campus, or even just in my personal life that I might experience in Indianapolis.”
Junior psychology major Cory Nack said that he was unsure of what to expect from the event but was inspired by Nwadike.
“You say you want to fix the world. And if you go about it by getting up in somebody’s face and saying, ‘You need to change because you’re wrong. You’re the problem,’ then it’s all about you, versus, ‘We can be the change, we’re all humans,’” he said. “It’s not about what side you’re on, it’s about what are you doing.”
Nwadike said that along with spreading his message to young people, he has plans to take the Free Hugs Project and his peace advocacy to the next level. On Sept. 23, Nwadike is hosting the March for Civility in Washington D.C. He will speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the same place where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He is also thinking about getting involved in politics. Nwadike said he likes to aim high and work hard to achieve all of his goals. Although he never expected the Free Hugs Project to get such a massive response, he hopes to inspire many people to advocate for peace in a time of chaos.