Hugs that launched a movement

Speaker Nwadlike tells of hugs that launched a movement

September 19, 2019
Ariel Wish '20
Ken Nwadlike speaks

Ken Nwadlike speaks to Saint Michael’s students on Wednesday in the McCarthy Arts Center Recital Hall. (photo by Max Rossignol ’22)

A small yet engaged audience of Saint Michael’s students gathered in the McCarthy Recital Hall on Wednesday, September 18 to listen to peace activist Ken Nwadlike tell the story of how he went from a lonely high schooler living in a homeless shelter to an athlete training for the Olympics, a model for homeless youth, and most of all, the founder of the “Free Hugs” movement.

To begin the MLK-Society-sponsored event, Nwadlike showed a video of the frontlines of a political raid, where he stood in the middle of angry, violent protesters and a sea of policemen, wearing a shirt that read “Free Hugs” and trying to bring peace and civility to the scene.

Nwadlike explained that, while this video now represents the majority of his work, it was not at all what he had in mind when he first held a sign advertising “free hugs.” Rather, the movement grew out of a spur-of-the-moment decision he made after learning he had spent years training for the Boston Marathon only to miss the mark by a hair. While he couldn’t run in the race, he would stand on the side lines and give people hugs “to show people how important it is to spread love in the midst of chaos and see the humanity in one another,” he told a group of teens from the homeless shelter he was volunteering at who had traveled across the country only to watch him lose the race they thought would win him his ticket to the Marathon. While they all thought the idea was crazy, it turned out to be a huge success.

Within hours of the marathon, Nwadlike’s act of kindness was featured on news platforms country-wide including Buzz Feed, Huffington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe. “I realized that maybe I wasn’t supposed to run in the Boston Marathon; maybe I was supposed to do this,” he said.

Seeing himself all over the press was bittersweet for Nwadlike: “I started to realize how much we’re not embracing one another. Are we that bad as a society that something as simple as a hug could get this much attention?” This realization was the root of the majority of Nwadlike’s current work: standing in the middle of politically-charged and many times violent events, giving hugs to those in attendance.

Nwadlike’s quote, “Encouraging opposing sides to respect each other as human beings is a major step toward peace,” came on the screen after his second video was shown and remained there for the rest of the event. Indeed, this idea seems to be the backdrop for his work.

The second half of the event was open to questions from the audience, in which Nwadlike admitted to be particularly amazed by the thoughtfulness and intellect of each student’s question. “The real change I’ve seen in this work is through real conversations: the change I’ve seen at the heart level. When you establish a real friendship in these situations, people’s lives are changed,” he told the audience.

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