Supporting Socially-Conscious Companies in the Midst of Our Nation’s Culture War Part 1

Photo Credit: Martin Scholler

I have always been an advocate of corporate community engagement, especially as it relates to the arts. Since the early days of my career working as the director of marketing for Dance Theater of Harlem, I have found great value and fun in doing outreach to Diversity Employee Groups, Employee Resource Groups and human resource directors to plan arts-related outings or helping to plan in-house commemorations. I believe access to the arts and cultural enrichment should involve all aspects of life, including one’s place of employment. At the end of the day, most corporations want their employees to be happy and fully engaged in their work. I’ve found that the “happiness quotient” increases when employees feel appreciated, respected and cared about; when companies see equality as the recognition of differences and the positive values those differences bring to the table, or when the company is courageous enough to publicly promote those values.

Last week, Nike found the incentive and courage to blaze a new chapter of our nation’s ongoing culture war. Let’s be very clear: The real genesis of this battleground is the current occupant of the White House, who has seen fit to derogatively attack people and the media who disagree with him, especially if those people are African American. And it’s also hard to ignore his family-separation policies and refusal to denounce or disassociate with the ideas promoted by white nationalists, further inflaming and polluting the global image of America’s humanistic values, as inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Despite all of that, Nike decided that what they had to say was worth the risk. Of course, it is a multi-billion-dollar, global corporation—the largest athletic retailer in the world. How big of a risk is it taking? Conversely, in a climate of political and social instability, why risk anything? Is this, as Spike Lee said during a television interview last week, a fight over the “right side of history?”

Nike’s salvo is its 30th anniversary #Just Do It! advertising campaign and commercial featuring a voice over by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. If you haven’t seen the commercial, check it out here. While everyone is focusing on Kaepernick and his powerful portrait in the print/online ad taken by photographer Martin Schoeller, they’re missing the point of the commercial. Not only does it feature Serena Williams and LeBron James, it also features more than a dozen of not so well-known and unknown athletes who have overcome unbelievable obstacles to pursue their dreams. This is how it’s described by the newspaper USAToday:

It begins with a skateboarder falling off a rail, a child with no legs on a wrestling mat, an African-American boy who couldn’t be 10 years old running down a dirt road, a young shadowboxing woman wearing a hijab, a surfer, a Pop Warner football game and a blond girl playing high school football against boys. Every one of those images connects to the overall theme of being different, of overcoming some type of obstacle or stereotype, which fits in well with why Kaepernick is here in the first place rather than playing quarterback in the NFL.

In other words, the ad is promoting many facets of diversity and the importance of fighting for your beliefs and your dreams. Inspirational is an understatement! It’s no wonder that the ad has gone viral, especially in the African-American community; other communities of color, and amongst youth. As of this posting, the commercial has had more than 31-million views YouTube. Kaepernick is the backdrop because he is the personification of the ad’s theme: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” But his personal determination to use his position as an athlete to shine a spotlight and take a knee during the U.S. National Anthem to protest injustice and police shootings of African-American men, which I wrote about in an October 2017 blog post, is never mentioned nor shown in the ad. The real star of this campaign is the determined, never give up spirit, pushing back against a world that says there are limits and walls because of age, race, national origin, gender, social and economic status, religious beliefs or physical ability.

Let’s not pretend that Nike is fully “woke.” They have been on the hot seat for many years for poor working conditions in their foreign production factories. And just last month, several former, female employees filed a class action lawsuit against the company alleging that women endured a hostile work environment; were paid less than men, and allegations of sexual harassment were ignored. Based on the lawsuit, the “happiness quotient” for many women at Nike is zero, and some argue the Kaepernick campaign is a “smoke screen” to recast the company’s image. However, some of Nike’s strongest brand representatives are women, such as Serena, and women are among the fastest growing segments of their customer base. I envision that Nike will be compelled to resolve this lawsuit in the very near future or the call for a boycott of Nike could take on a sports bra-burning dimension.

While advertisement is more akin to entertainment than what we traditionally refer to as the arts, we can’t deny its broad influence on our culture and our views—of ourselves, of our neighbors and the rest of the world. The Nike advertisement campaign is an audacious and very loud statement, much like the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, Eve Ensler’s“The Vagina Monologues,” or Anna Deveare Smith’s “Notes from the Field.” How fitting to have Colin Kaepernick as the champion for dreamers willing to risk it all; crazy enough to pursue their dreams.

The condemnations of Nike, such as the calls for boycotts or the “shoe burnings,” which are painfully reminiscent of cross burnings, are getting more than what I think is their fair share of news coverage. That’s why I believe it’s important that those of us who want corporations whose profits are bolstered by communities of color to take a stand on social justice issues, need to speak up via our hashtags and vote with our pocketbooks. And for the record, my daughter and I went school shopping and purchased Nike sneakers. Just sayin’….#Just Do It!

.Part 2 next week: Inclusion Riders.