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.”
“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.
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.”
“Replacing one person for another is cool, but we’re still operating under the same structure that benefits the people who perpetuated the problem,” Galloway said. “It’s a conflict of interest, us [Black employees] trying to propose the way we want to do things to people who perpetuated the situation over the years.”
Galloway said the problems range from a low number of Black employees in leadership positions to a workplace culture that does not value Black viewpoints while profiting from associating with Black culture. Three of the 15 members of Nike’s executive leadership team and three of Nike’s 13 members of its board of directors are Black.
“On the creative side, and just in general, I feel like our perspective [as Black employees] isn’t valued,” Galloway said. “When you’ve got people like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, all these Black athletes—you’re exploiting the culture, so that’s even worse. Nike and other companies put themselves in a position where they use Black culture to build their business, and it doesn’t reflect on the inside.”
According to a 2019 Forbes report, Nike pays James $32 million a year to license his brand. Bryant’s contract was worth $16 million before his death. Sneaker endorsements are typically the largest source of income for NBA players off the court, but they earn even more for the brands. While Michael Jordan remains the highest-paid sneaker athlete, taking in an estimated $130 million a year from Nike’s Jordan brands, Nike itself earns $3.14 billion a year from using his name.
Another Nike employee, who works in tech but asked not to be named, said the biggest problem with diversity at Nike is a lack of transparency.
It doesn’t feel like the voice of the employees are being broadcast in any way within the company,” said the tech worker, who suggested the company should survey employees and create an “employee platform” so their needs and concerns can be shared.
“There’s no one Black on my team,” said the Nike tech employee. “I go to the Black employee network meetings, but I interact with almost no one in my day-to-day job who is Black. It’s difficult to talk about the experiences people are having when we don’t even have diversity in the group to begin with.”