ACTIVIST KEN E. NWADIKE JR HAS THE COURAGE TO FIND PEACE
The lightworker and motivational speaker behind Free Hugs Project brings love to the frontlines.
From surviving homelessness and scarcity to thriving in the face of violence, protests, and hatred, Ken Nwadike Jr. has learned to find peace amidst the chaos. You have probably seen the peace activist on some of the most tumultuous frontlines. But even in the center of dangerous confrontations across the U.S., Ken only comes armed with one powerful force: Love.
Known for his viral Free Hugs Project, the San Diego-based motivational speaker is a champion of connection and is leading the charge on difficult conversations. The former track star’s de-escalation tactics have allowed him to merge opposing sides and facilitate dialogues toward progress. Here’s our chat.
HOW DID YOU BECOME THE “FREE HUGS GUY”?
I was a track athlete for the majority of my life. I was organizing the Hollywood Half Marathon in Los Angeles, and the day after my inaugural race, the Boston Marathon bombing happened. From there, I started to see how much hate exists worldwide. I saw the impact that attack had on the running community. I knew that I needed to use whatever my gifts and talents were to try and do something, which led to the Boston Marathon. I printed “free hugs” on a t-shirt, which became what I’ve been known for.
WHY DO YOU HUG AS A PATH TOWARD PEACE?
A hug is so unifying. You can’t give a hug without accepting a hug. It creates that real feeling of family, brotherhood, and sisterhood. You’re not shaking a hand or high-fiving from a distance. You’re actually bringing someone into your personal space. It builds trust. It shows camaraderie, and even scientifically, it boosts oxytocin and serotonin levels — things we all need to reduce depression, anxiety, and fear. The idea of a hug seemed much more impactful to get people to connect. Free hugs can’t always be a physical thing. Sometimes, it has to be how we communicate.
HOW ARE YOU DEFINING PEACE IN YOUR ACTIVISM?
I define peace as when people from opposing sides can better understand one another. And I think that sometimes violence and hatred are so easy to exist when you view the opposite side as “the others.” You don’t realize how much they can be like you with similar hopes, dreams, and goals for their future and families. But it’s being discussed differently, so we’re not understanding each other. When you can create dialogue that can lead to peace, which ultimately comes by understanding and, at the very least for it to reduce violence for people to say, look, we can agree to disagree. We’ll never be on the same page, but I’m glad we communicated.
I’ve seen that so much over the past 10 years of doing this work. People who probably never thought that they could have been friends because of their political and religious views, whatever separates them. I’m finding that real genuine friendships are being born in those spaces.
PEACE ACTIVISM TAKES A TOLL ON THE MIND AND HEART. HOW ARE YOU TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF?
Even though it can be really heavy on your heart, I find comfort in the conversations I get to have with people. The interactions I’ve experienced when I’m out in spaces are healing. Sometimes it does get very scary. How do you decompress from that? I get to step away from work and spend time with my family. I have five children now. Something about being around my babies is so precious that it gets rid of all the mess in the world. That’s a lot of coming home to hugs. I’m also able to say this is who I do it for.
WHAT’S SOMETHING YOU’RE LEARNING ABOUT YOURSELF?
I really enjoy fatherhood. People have a lot of stigma and negativity out there about Black fathers. Our generation today is breaking that because many of my homeboys are all proud fathers. And it’s almost like the generation before us came up through an era that made it too easy for Black fathers to be pulled away from their households. I’ve been married 14 years now, have five children, and I’m like — man, I’m in this, and I got this. I feel very proud of that and have learned so much about myself. When I first came into marriage, I felt very selfish with my time but with children? You lay all that down, and everything becomes about the family.
WHAT IS YOUR HIGHEST VISION FOR YOUR LIFE?
My highest vision for my life is to be able to leave here with some sort of legacy. God forbid if I’m gone tomorrow, did I leave a mark? That’s extremely important to me. We’ve got one life to live. Are you gonna be remembered for what you did while you were here? I’m constantly striving for whatever that is.
WHAT MANTRA IS BRINGING YOU PEACE?
The word victory has always stuck out to me since I was a kid. I’ve been so in love with the idea of Nike — the Greek goddess of victory. My mantra is to be victorious over things that seek to reduce and destroy me. That’s why, even with the work that I do now, there are times when I’ll step in to host de-escalation training for law enforcement officers. I spent so much time growing up in communities and hoods where I was like, these cops are out to destroy me. When I’m standing in a room, and there are 75 police officers in their uniforms taking notes based on the things that I’m saying, it’s like, wow, you’ve overcome that.
I try to figure out where and how I can feel victorious in all areas of my life. That affirmation causes me to be moving toward what’s next. What level are you trying to achieve? You’re not afraid of the police anymore, so what level are you trying to achieve? That gives me comfort and access in places where many people would be fearful.
Victory is the word. What do you need to rise above to find your inner peace? Let us know in the comments!