LOU: We’re giving back to our communities for the wrong reasons


Klara Lou

In 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel rather than stand during the pre-game national anthem. He stated that his gesture was a protest against police brutality and the racial inequality that is still present in the United States today: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”

His actions sparked a storm of controversy, as conservatives saw his behavior as disrespect to the American military and liberals viewed it as a powerful statement on social justice. Irrespective of whether you perceive him as a traitor for dishonoring the flag or a moral activist for calling attention to racial inequities, Kaepernick has become a well-known figure in the media. He has polarized the national conversation surrounding social justice activism, prompting many to ask whether patriotism or justice has a higher value.

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Nike’s debut of the “Just Do It” slogan, the company released a new ad campaign featuring a close-up portrait of Kaepernick. Emblazoned on his face, in bold white print, were the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” A clear allusion to Kaepernick’s decision to kneel two years ago, this new advertising campaign symbolizes a powerful statement of intent, redefining the Nike brand purpose.

Like the feedback Kaepernick received from the popular media in 2016, Nike has received many aggressive responses to their decision to use Kaepernick as their new campaign figure. Not only has President Donald Trump directly attacked Nike and Kaepernick on Twitter, but many Republicans have also posted videos of themselves cutting up Nike socks and burning Nike shoes. When the ad was released, Nike’s stock price immediately fell by three percent, but rebounded with an astonishing 31 percent increase in online sales in the following days. While alienating some consumers, Nike won so many more.

This sudden success from Nike’s newest campaign leaves many questioning the genuineness of the brand’s message. They have faced multiple allegations of using sweatshops and other unethical labor practices over the years. Is it an actual fight for equality as a socially conscious business or simply an exploitation of a divisive issue as a clever marketing strategy? Does Nike really care?

This question of the genuineness of an action does not just circulate around Nike and Kaepernick, but extends to all of us, especially college students. No matter what social media platform you use, there’s always a plethora of posts attempting to mobilize college kids in order to make productive change. When you walk past the Rand Wall, thousands of flyers are thrown in your face, urging you to join an activist or service organization. While this may lead to increased community involvement, a problem arises: Are we doing this work because of a moral imperative? Or perhaps do we have ulterior motives, using service as a tool to boost our egos, better our personal image or add one more line to the resume?

It’s really self-serving: give back to get back.

At Vanderbilt, there are many student organizations and requirements that exemplify this concerning ambiguity about authenticity of objectives: Relay For Life, Dance Marathon, Alternative Spring Break, Derby Days and required philanthropy service hours from Greek Life members. These organizations all serve motivations other than service. Relay for Life and Dance Marathon are outlets for fortifying and extending social networks. Alternative Spring Break gives students an excuse to travel to fun places. Derby Days fulfills mandatory fraternity philanthropy hours.

It’s really self-serving: give back to get back. Whether it is to get an internship offer or get an in with a certain group of people, service has been used as a quantitative measure of achievement that assesses and markets an individual’s value. It is very easy to fall into this mindset about service, and it doesn’t make you a bad person, as our culture is increasingly breeding this sort of mentality. It’s why it’s hard not to squirm when someone describes what they do to give back–it all sounds so unnatural and forced.

Because of the growing emphasis on meaningful and intellectual engagement with the community, students feel more compelled than ever to make deliberate choices when it comes to community service. They are seeking to portray this in their applications with the goal of trying appearing unique.

If we truly care about something, the service will be enough motivation on its own.

Regardless, giving back in any way is beneficial for both the giver and receiver; however, it’s imperative that we all start contributing authentically. Only through authentic contribution can we develop gratitude or a sense of responsibility for the future, establishing more sustainable purpose and motivation. In order to start do this, we need to challenge ourselves to look within before looking out to others. We need to reach into ourselves and think about the issues we care about, the issues that people don’t want to talk about.

We need to evaluate what we care about and take the initiative in those topic areas without any outside motivations. If we truly care about something, the service will be enough motivation on its own. And Nike also needs to evaluate whether it genuinely cares about human rights before it publicizes its dedication to the issue. Without this authentic motivation, service becomes nothing more than a fad, a means to an end.


Klara Lou is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]