Story by Emma Benjamin and Jackson Goodman / Contributing Writers
Photo by Jackson Goodman / Contributing Writer
Ken Nwadike spoke to a crowded room Tuesday night in the KUC theater with a mission to spread his message about love, peace and communication to people across the country.
Nwadike began by explaining events that shaped his early life. He saw his father arrested by police at the age of eight.
“At that time, we lived in Seattle, and (after that event), my mother decided to move us to Los Angeles and raise us herself,” Nwadike said.
By the time he was 16, he was in and out of either low-income housing or homelessness. During high school, Nwadike caught the eye of a coach and created a support system for himself using track.
Running helped Nwadike find purpose in his adolescence and into his adulthood. Goal-oriented, he rushed for his team and toward his own personal finish line.
“I believed that by stepping on that track, I could run away from homelessness,” Nwadike said.
Completing a mile in four minutes and 17 seconds, he was one of the fastest mile-runners in the state of California. He became accomplished in his pursuits and chose to use his talent and influence to help the young people who were in his same shoes.
“The kids living in the shelters (I) grew up in didn’t have a lot of opportunities offered to them,” Nwadike said. “I wanted to show them a project from beginning to end.”
The Hollywood Half Marathon, which Nwadike produced and promoted through social media, had over 100,000 participants and raised over $1 million for homeless shelters in the greater Los Angeles area. This led him to sister competitions, such as the Boston Marathon. However, after the terrorist attacks in 2013, Nwadike unintentionally began a new chapter in his life.
“I felt personally threatened,” Nwadike said.
He recounted that day in Boston when runners and spectators lost their lives. An activity that lifted Nwadike up became perverted by an act of hatred. At the 2014 marathon, Nwadike decided to participate wearing a “Free Hugs” shirt and gave out hugs to those who ran and their supporters on the sidelines. The event left Nwadike with a lot of questions about the nature of interaction between people. According to Nwadike, he was astounded “that we may be so detached as a society where a hug is now something unexpected or strange.”
Overnight, Nwadike became a viral sensation. He showcased his message on traditional media channels, as well as used his own social media accounts for a boost.
As the years have progressed, Nwadike has spread his message of love, peace and communication to those across the country by appearing on college campuses and inserting himself into political and social protests. Nwadike was in the fields of North Dakota as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe protested the Dakota Access Pipeline, and he “was in that alley when that guy mowed down all those people” in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Sarah Harris, 21, is the social awareness manager for Student Programing and Raider Entertainment on campus. It is SPARE’s job to provide low-cost entertainment for students during the school year. Harris said she knew she wanted Nwadike to speak at MTSU after hearing him last spring.
“I just really liked his message of creating peace and change instead of being divided and angry,” Harris said. “Hopefully, he’ll create a conversation by spreading the same message on our campus.”
“I stay inspired to do the work that I do, knowing it makes a difference,” Nwadike said.
Some students were familiar with his activism beforehand, but others were only just exposed to it Tuesday night. Freshman Nia Allen, an aerospace major, was not familiar with Nwadike at all before coming to see him speak on a whim.
“I left feeling inspired,” Allen said. “After seeing him speak, I felt like I had the power to create change.”
Follow the MTSU events page for more information about speakers coming to campus.
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