He’s the guy in those online videos wearing the shirt that reads “FREE HUGS” with a matching, hand-held sign and offering hugs to runners during races. He’s also hugging police officers working at those races, and most famously, opening his arms to supporters at a Donald Trump rally and a Bernie Sanders rally.
Ken Nwadike Jr. is the face of the Free Hugs Project. (He’s so recognizable at this point that when he’s walking through the airport - or even our office for his interview - while wearing that particular shirt, people fling their arms open and approach him for a hug). The initiative to spread love, inspire change and raise awareness of social issues began in 2013. His Trump/Sanders rally video, part of his #MakeAmericaLoveAgain movement, has been viewed more than 100 million times and picked up by major media outlets. His hope is that people who see his videos will make a conscious effort to be more kind and connect with others.
When the 34-year-old husband and father of three isn’t traveling to capture hugs on video, he and his wife run Superhero Events, LLC, which produces running events from 5K races to half-marathons. Nwadike is also a runner who previously worked with an Olympic development training program at Stanford University, and came close to running a mile in under four minutes before taking a break from competitive racing.
The Chula Vista High School graduate lives in Eastlake with his family and took some time to talk about his project, his personal experiences with homelessness as a kid that led him to raise money for homeless youth now, and what was going through his mind as he made his way to those rallies.
Q: How did the Free Hugs Project start?
A: While viewing the devastation of the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon, I was determined to be a participant in the next race. I failed to qualify by just 23 seconds, so I decided to attend the event in a different way: with free hugs to runners as encouragement along the route.
Q: Tell us about the viral Trump/Sanders rally video. Why did you go from attending races to attending political rallies for this video?
A: In 2015, I took a break from recording Free Hugs videos at races because it was starting to seem redundant. I needed a new focal point to add some variety and make the videos interesting again. The political rallies seemed to be such a hot topic due to the strong views that each candidate has on a variety of topics. Donald Trump’s hate speech and Bernie Sanders message of unity seemed like the perfect outline for the video. I wondered if both of their messages and values would be displayed by their supporters.
Q: There have been accounts of hostility and actual assault against people of color and other minorities at Trump rallies. Were you worried about attending one?
A: I was very concerned for my safety for days leading up to the event, and my friends and family were also worried that I could be putting myself in harm’s way. I had to mentally prepare myself and my media team to be verbally harassed and possibly physically assaulted as well. I knew there would be a multitude of police at the rally, so that eased some of my concerns.
Q: What kinds of conversations did you have with your team about what to do once you got there, and how to handle the responses to your being there?
A: I let my team know that no matter how negatively we are approached or hated on, we must only respond with love and kindness. It’s strange having to mentally prepare to be called the “n” word in 2016.
Free Hugs at political rallies
Q: Did any of those supporters welcome a hug from you?
A: Surprisingly, there were a handful of Trump supporters that did accept hugs from me. Some instead offered handshakes, but most declined.
Q: Why compare the responses between the two rallies?
A: I felt it was important to show viewers the type of supporters that attend each rally. People emulate leaders that they follow, so we have the option to create the type of America that we want to live in based on who we appoint as a leader.
What I love about Eastlake ...
I love that my neighborhood is quiet, and near good schools and parks. I feel blessed to be able to raise my kids in the type of stable environment that I always dreamed of having for myself. I’m reliving my youth through them.
Q: Do you think if you offered Donald Trump a hug, he would hug you?
A: LOL. Good question. I don’t think he would hug me because it’s not in his character to do so. I would hope he would at least shake my hand, though.
Q: What was your goal with this particular video?
A: My goal was to show viewers that we need to make America love again. I assigned #MakeAmericaLoveAgain as the official hashtag of the video, so it was very exciting to see it become a Facebook and Twitter trending topic that day. It let me know that millions of people were sharing their support of the message.
Q: With the increased coverage of people protesting police brutality, there has been some criticism online regarding videos of you hugging police officers. How do you respond to critics who say that police are representatives of an oppressive system and that marginalized and oppressed groups shouldn’t be expected to embrace them?
A: I think that starting the conversation with kindness rather than hatred will get us a lot further. Communities are divided because of fear, hatred and misunderstanding. Embracing representatives of oppressive systems will hopefully open their hearts and minds to listen to our concerns.
Q: You and your wife run your endurance sports company, Superhero Events. If you woke up tomorrow with one super power, which one would you want?
A: It would definitely be the power to time travel. There are many things that I would like to do over. I would especially love to change the outcome of many major moments in history by sending warnings of the outcome. I actually own a replica of the DeLorean from “Back to the Future.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t travel through time.
Q: Your Hollywood Half-Marathon & 5K/10K raises money for homeless youth. Is this a result of your own experience with homelessness?
A: My siblings and I lived in a homeless shelter in Los Angeles when I was 11, then again in San Diego when I was 15. My mother was raising five kids on her own, so sometimes paying rent and bills got really overwhelming for her. During the time that my family was going through financial difficulty, there were organizations and shelters that helped us. This is my way of paying it forward to let them know I appreciated the help.
Q: What do you wish other people understood about families dealing with homelessness?
A: I wish more people understood that homelessness is not always a result of drug or alcohol abuse. Many people just fall on hard times, and it can be often difficult to get up without assistance.
Q: What have you learned about yourself because of your Free Hugs Project?
A: That I really care about the future of our world. I want it to be a nicer place for the next generation. They will have so many more technological advancements, but I fear that they will grow further apart from each other by losing human interaction.
Q: What have you learned about other people?
A: That many people have the same desire to connect more and show kindness to others, but are afraid to initiate it. Most people want others to take the first step so they can kindly respond. I like taking the first step and hope to inspire others to do the same.
Q: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: My high school track coach, Arthur Johnson: “Sometimes it’s OK to be selfish. You can’t go on worrying about everyone else’s problems without first taking care of your own. Fix yourself first, so you could be stronger when helping others.”
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I was very shy and insecure until I got to college. It was so bad that I wouldn’t ever even make eye contact with people when speaking. Winning on the track really boosted my confidence and helped me to communicate better. I still have slight issues with it, but not nearly as bad as when I was young.
Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Being out with my family at a race. Whether I’m running, coaching, or just watching a race doesn’t matter, I just love being around the sport.