5 Reflections Toward Building a Liberatory Consulting Practice

May 2, 2023 Aisha Alexander-Young and Melissa DeShields

Between 2019 and 2022, Frontline Solutions experienced tremendous growth. We more than quintupled our revenue. In 2022 alone, we worked on 59 projects with clients ranging from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Make the Road. Since 2020, we’ve regranted $2,445,700 to 34 BIPOC organizations working to remove structural barriers and accelerate economic mobility for communities of color. We expect to launch another RFP in the coming months. And, through our investments in our people and culture, we’ve cultivated joy, deepened our practices of learning and reflection, and experimented toward liberation—all of which has strengthened our ability to support clients through their own internal transformations.

For all organizations, growth comes with opportunities and challenges, which are sometimes two sides of the same coin. How do you ride momentum while remaining strategic? How do you seize new possibilities while ensuring that your team doesn’t burn out?

As a Black-founded and led consulting firm with a mission of advancing freedom and justice for Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color, we’ve always been mindful of not conforming to white-centered and toxic standards of practice, such as valuing production over people. As we grew, we were committed to safeguarding our values and culture, and to ensuring that our team had what they needed to thrive and to continue doing amazing work.

It was with this in mind that Frontline’s owners decided to launch a search for a new role within our firm: Our first Lead for our consulting practice. We envisioned the role with three key responsibilities:

  • Leading the consulting practice comprised of a diverse team of activists, scholars, advocates, coaches, strategists, and artists by guiding day-to-day operations, and ensuring that clients receive a best-in-class experience.
  • Creating internal systems and structures to support client engagement, and allow the consulting team to advance our values, culture, and mission.
  • Analyzing trends across internal and external landscapes to enhance our consulting practice and ensure that it continues to thrive.

In January of this year, we were thrilled to welcome Aisha Alexander-Young into this role. Aisha is a context creator, systems disruptor, and community organizer whose career is focused on the intersection of race, place, and opportunity. She has held leadership positions in philanthropy, local government, grassroots organizations, and small and large nonprofits.

Three months in, Aisha is still very much in learning mode, but she dove headfirst into conversations with our whole team about our history, present, and future. Here, we share some of our collective reflections about what it takes to build a truly liberatory consulting practice:

1. Build and nurture transformational, not transactional, relationships. One of the special things about Aisha joining the Frontline team is that she’s a longtime friend of the firm. Our first encounter was almost 10 years ago, when Aisha was leading development for Dream Defenders, and Frontline’s founder and senior partner Marcus Littles reached out to say, “We want to help get you in the right rooms to get the money you need.”

Dream Defenders was not a client, but they were doing vital work to build power in communities we cared about, and we wanted to support it. That desire was rooted in our values. We’re a business, and we need to make money, but we never lose sight of our north star. We’re acutely aware that the change we want to see requires transformational relationships.

Now, as we reflect on our nearly two decades of partnering with the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, we see that one of the most important factors contributing to our most successful projects—the ones that helped clients to move the needle on their missions and goals—was the depth of the relationship.

We do our best work and make our best contributions when we’re not just charged with producing a single deliverable over a few months, but rather with partnering deeply on iterative processes for a sustained period. That kind of work requires trust, risk-taking, radical imagination, and co-creation.

As we envision the future of the firm, we see ourselves as critical, courageous, friends to clients who are ready to take bold action. The kind of friends who both cheer for and challenge you. The kind of friends who help you realize your wildest dreams. And, because we believe in creating our own success, increasingly this means reaching out to folks we admire and saying, “Let’s get to know one another.

2. Be unapologetic about what matters most. A liberatory consulting firm is never neutral when it comes to what matters most. At Frontline, we will always be unapologetically Black.

For us, equity is the baseline. We’re most interested in working with clients who have done a significant amount of work on their equity journeys and are ready to move further along the continuum. We’re less interested in folks who are asking, “How do we recruit and retain a more diverse staff?” and more interested in working with folks who are asking, “How do we center equity in everything we do?” And, even beyond that, we’re excited to partner with organizations who are asking, “What will it take to move from equity to justice?”, “How can we transfer power?”, and “How can we be an organization that advances liberation?”

By no means do we have all the answers to those questions, but to all our work, we bring an analysis of race, class, power, and systems that allows us to get at the roots of issues. We bring tools to help organizations move through discomfort and conflict. And, yes, we bring our point of view. We’re energized, for example, to be working on several climate justice projects this year. We need radical action to reduce greenhouse emissions and we know that climate change and systems of oppression are not separate, whether you’re talking about racism, classism, patriarchy, etc. They’re all inextricably linked. We must address the impacts that climate change is already having on people’s lives, and the reality that BIPOC communities across the world are most impacted. This isn’t a coincidence. And we’re committed to constantly honing and sharpening our analysis through political education with our team.

3. Stay accountable to the results. As we’ve stated, we’re discerning about the projects we take on. We frequently turn down work that isn’t aligned with our values and mission. And our values continue to guide us through projects.

We work with clients to, for example, fundamentally reimagine their role and work to be more equitable, or to create liberatory spaces where they didn’t previously exist. This requires a lot of self-reflection, as individuals and as organizations. It can be messy and uncomfortable. Conflict can arise. When that happens, people might want to retreat to old behaviors and practices and ask us to facilitate that. Instead, we remain accountable to the results we’re seeking together, and we support them in continuing to stretch and to struggle, in productive and affirming ways, toward those results.

4. Be vulnerable and transparent. When it comes to the kind of work we’ve described above, we know what clients are going through because we’ve navigated similar challenges and made mistakes along the way. Like many of them, we’re an organization that is continuously trying to do and be better, and to reimagine what work environments and cultures can be. We’re trying to figure out how to advance justice and liberation starting with ourselves.  For example, recently, based on a process of co-creation with our team, we began experimenting with a new structure to provide coaching, feedback, and support folks want without resorting to an overly hierarchical system of people management.

There’s a ton of vulnerability in doing things differently. People worry: What if we get it wrong? What if we fail? What if that failure gets exposed? But, rather than live in that fear, we believe in being transparent about all of it. We’ve shared many of our missteps publicly. We hope that others can learn alongside us. It’s scary, but it’s worth it because it makes our clients trust us. They know that our advice comes not from a place of judgment, but from a place of practice and experience, and we hope that inspires them to be more courageous.

5. Distribute power and knowledge. Every single person on Frontline’s team is coming to our work with lived experiences that have influenced the way they see the world, and their understanding of how the world needs to change. They have an internal drive that isn’t just about the paycheck, or how they can advance on the leadership ladder, though those things are important. They have an analysis that is grounded in lived experience. Our mission, values, and approaches are deeply personal to them. And, our team is brilliant.

As leaders in the firm, our most important role is to support that collective brilliance. For us, it’s about power with instead of power over. We’re focused on ensuring that people have the autonomy, knowledge, connections, tools, and resources, etc. that they need to go out there and do their best work for our clients. We want to make sure that, when you hire us, no matter who is assigned to your team, you’re getting the full force of the firm.