In this podcast episode, Josh Ochs interviews Justin Wren an MMA fighter, author, speaker, and humanitarian. For his foundation, Fight for the Forgotten, Justin has used a portion of his MMA earnings to buy land and build fresh water wells for the Mbuti pygmy people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Justin was bullied his entire life but through the sport and martial art of wrestling, he found an outlet. Today Justin is on a mission to tackle bullying through both awareness and prevention.
Justin has partnered with Century Martial Arts to develop an anti-bullying curriculum that will be implemented in martial arts academies across the nation. He is also passionate about sharing his story with organizations, schools, academies, and youth events in order to break the lifelong chains of bullying.
A huge number of kids in the U.S. skip school because of bullying, what was that experience like for you?
I grew up getting bullied. Kindergarten through second grade, I had a speech therapist. Third to eighth grade was pretty tough. It continued all the way through sixth grade. I was one of the 180,000 kids that skipped school every day because of bullying.
There’s an astronomical number of kids in the US skipping school because of bullying (close to 200,000 a day). My parents couldn’t get me to go to school a lot of the time. I wasn’t a kid that was getting in disciplinary problems. I wasn’t acting up in school, but I was being targeted and I was being bullied and I didn’t want my parents to know.
I started the biggest battle of my life, which was against depression and suicidal ideation.
There were times of anxiety but depression has been my biggest battle in life.
What can parents tell their children if they’re suffering from bullying?
There is light. There’s hope in the darkness, the future is bright. If you’re experiencing bullying now, it can seem so hopeless, but there’s always hope. You can overcome this tough time, this trial, you just have to dig deep. You have to communicate with your loved ones, with your parents, with your teachers, with the school faculty, with your classmates. Don’t isolate, don’t close up.
Don’t bottle it up. If you keep it bottled up, it can explode.
I think when you’re in a fight when you’re in a battle, when you’re going to struggle, one of the best things to do is to separate your emotions from the hurt and come up with a game plan.
What does it take to be a hero?
A hero is someone who sees a need and takes action immediately.
They don’t stand back and wait. They’re not a bystander. What we want to do is encourage students that whenever they stand up against bullying, it changes things. It can change a life, can save a life, and it’s the right thing to do. What we want to do is empower people to go from being a bystander to being an upstander. Someone that will stand up for the person that’s being bullied. Upstanders can shut bullying down within five seconds, 87% of the time. So almost 9 out of 10 times you can be the one to shut down bullying or deflect it.
If someone sees bullying and doesn’t say anything does that make them a bully?
Most bullies are encouraged to keep bullying when bystanders remain silent. And what that actually translates to is I’m not just a bystander, I’m a silent supporter. So if you’re being a bystander, you’re involved.
Now you have to take action or you have to make a choice. Your choice is either to do nothing and be quiet and to let it continue or do something about it, to intervene, to include that person in your circle or your group or to see someone sitting alone by themselves at the lunch table, go sit with them or invite them to come to sit with you.
How can bullied students handle anxiety?
I had anxiety when I was younger. It’s actually something that’s come out in recent years more so than ever. Whenever I get overwhelmed with anxiety, I have a couple of things I do, I go to my wife a lot of times and, be open, honest and talk about what I’m feeling. Now we’re able to talk about it and have it out in the open, a lot of times just sharing my feeling with someone else helps bring something into the light.
I think a lot of times it’s healing. A lot of times it’s good to get it out in the open. When you think about things that are kept in the dark, that’s where negativity thrives.
Think of fungus or bacteria, they need to be in darkness, that’s where they can grow and not just survive, but thrive. Then you bring that fungus, that bacteria into the light and a lot of times it just can’t thrive there.
Bringing anxiety into the light with my wife and having her guide me. And then also taking a step back and being like, “You know what, this isn’t a life or death matter.” I can’t give it this much power.
How did MMA lead to your humanitarian efforts?
At 13 years old, my childhood dream was to become an MMA fighter. After a childhood of bullying, I found MMA and I threw myself into it. With wrestling, I became a ten-time state champion in wrestling and a five-time all American at two national championships. I left high school and went straight to the Olympic training center for wrestling at 19. I had already wrestled in Moscow and kickboxed in Amsterdam. By the time I was 21, I was on a reality TV show in Vegas, fighting at the highest level of the sport. But it didn’t fulfill me. I found myself in a deep dark depression and I remember thinking, is this it?
It didn’t feel like it was my purpose. I was always fighting against people. I felt like that was my purpose; to fight for people. So, we started up a project for the pygmies where I went and stayed with them for a month.
How has your foundation helped others?
The goal was to live with them, listen to them, and learn from them. Together we come up with the best way to love them in the most sustainable way through community development projects.
We were able to purchase their land back. Then we were able to drill wells. So many people die from dirty water; there are reports that 1 out of 2 children die before the age of 5 and another says 6 out of 10.
What we wanted to do was invest in the locals, train them with tools, give them the knowledge and let them be the change they want to see in their own community. I wanted to empower people, not just to talk about it, but to do something practical where people truly are helped in a genuine, transformative way.
We’ve been able to see 1500 people transition out of a life of slavery and into a life of freedom.