Why Black Nike Employees and Their Allies Are Protesting Every Day at Lunchtime

Frustrated workers called on organizers from Portland's Justice Center protests

Black Nike Employees Matter protest
Seneca Cayson (r.) has become a default negotiator between Nike and Portland's Black Lives Matter movement.
Mary Emily O'Hara

As federal officers announced a partial retreat from riotous Portland, Ore., streets on Wednesday, the city’s Black Lives Matter protests are moving to the suburbs to focus on a new target: Nike.

Seneca Cayson, a Portland musician and activist, doesn’t work at Nike. But an employee reached out to him directly, he said, because he’s become well-known as a leader and nightly speaker at the Black Lives Matter protests at Portland’s Justice Center. The person who contacted him asked for help throwing a spotlight on what they say are diversity problems at the world’s largest supplier of athletic shoes and apparel, which happens to be headquartered in a suburb just outside of town.

Now, Cayson spends every day from noon to 2 p.m. protesting across the street from the Nike campus, where he’s joined by some Nike employees eager for a way to voice their frustrations. Cayson spoke with Adweek as cars rolled by and drivers honked their horns one after another in support. He said that when it comes to diversity and inclusion, the employees he’s spoken to have told him: “Nike’s efforts are all external.”

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Sunday marked day one of the protest at Nike's Oregon headquarters.

“Like the [Colin] Kaepernick ads and putting money into organizations outside of Nike, that’s to keep attention off of the diversity issues they’re having inside—they’re buying some time to resolve it,” said Cayson. He said Nike had rushed plans to respond to pressures from the Black Lives Matter movement by finagling employee numbers to make the company appear more diverse than it really is: “There’s not enough Black employees, so they were going to fire X amount of whites and non-Black employees to even it out.”

“Instead of fixing the problem,” Cayson said, “they just wanted to make it look good on paper so the public can say, ‘This is OK.'”

“Our aspiration is for Nike to be a leader in building a diverse, inclusive team and culture,” a Nike spokesperson responded. “We have made progress on our D&I efforts but we have a lot more work to do.”

Nike pointed Adweek to the company’s diversity numbers, which state that Black employees made up about 21% of U.S. staff in 2019, 9% of vps and 4% of staff at the director level. “There are diverse senior leaders throughout the company, including members of our executive leadership team and board of directors,” the Nike spokesperson added, which includes Craig Williams, the president of Jordan Brand; G. Scott Uzzell, president and CEO of Converse and Melanie Harris, who is vp of, strategy & development for Nike.

But the representative also confirmed the diversity data does not include contractors (often called ETWs or “external temporary workers” at Nike). According to several Nike employees Adweek spoke to, contractors make up the bulk of workers at the company.

The protest—which Cayson has dubbed “Black Nike Employees Matter” on social media—started on Sunday, with a list of demands largely focused on overhauling the brand’s human resources department.

On Monday, Nike announced a “structural shift” naming Felicia Mayo, who joined the company last June as vice president of HR, as chief talent, diversity and culture officer, replacing D&I chief Kellie Leonard, who is leaving the company. Mayo held previous roles overseeing HR and diversity at Tesla and at Juniper Networks.

“We are bringing Talent and D+I together, weaving D+I into the entire talent agenda from the very beginning with measurement and accountability throughout,” the Nike representative told Adweek about Mayo’s promotion.

Nike vp of HR Felicia Mayo steps into a new role overseeing diversity this week.
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Jamaal Galloway, a staff designer at Nike who attended the lunch-hour protest on Monday and Tuesday, said he thinks the diversity problems at Nike are systemic and that “a lot of change needs to happen.”

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