Notes on How to Create an Organization that Honors Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging: A Sweet 16 Card to Frontline Solutions

Happy Sweet Sixteenth Frontline Solutions: Notes On How to Create an Org that Honors Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging

In the US and in some parts of Canada the 16th birthday of a young girl is referred to as their Sweet Sixteen birthday. It’s a significant point in someone’s life. It’s a milestone. It’s when you are officially of age. The journey of Frontline to get here, doesn’t mirror that of the wealthy, privileged teen who is getting a beamer, a hummvee and Bruno Mars singing to her on her 16th. Instead, it’s a story of snapping back, digging in, dreaming- and Black brilliance.

I think this story is especially useful to share right now because it seems that there is a groundswell of organizations trying to figure out how to recruit and retain Black talent. I think Frontline’s approach is worthy of notetaking by many of these aspiring and hopeful organizations.

I’ve served as a leader at the largest philanthropic organization, one of the largest banks and one of the largest cities in the US. In the US, I worked in one of the whitest cities and one of the blackest cities. Only once in my life have I reported to someone who I felt believed in me, championed me, and pushed me — despite the often contentious ecosystem we worked within. I never believed she hid the ball. As brilliant as she was, I never felt like an outsider or less than when I was around her. I never felt that she exercised power over me, or that she ever even tried to or had any desire to do that. To kill the suspense, that leader’s name is now recognized in innumerable households across the US, Stacey Abrams.

Then there was the day I began to partner with Frontline, self-described as:

Black-founded and led, we’re a diverse team of activists, scholars, advocates, coaches, strategists, and artists. We draw on these multifaceted perspectives and lived experiences to engage with organizations in the journey toward their boldest most expansive visions.

Before partnering with Frontline, I admired some of its team members from afar. In 2018 I began to support some of the Frontline projects and I now serve as a Senior Director. And what was different about this experience? So that this doesn’t become a book, I’m going to give you the high-level notes and a few examples. Admittedly, this won’t provide the full understanding of Frontline’s secret sauce. Somethings just can’t be replicated.

1. Power. Sharing. When the male founders step back and select a woman to be the first CEO of the organization, there was a depth of professional maturity and the practice of recognizing power as something you exercise with others to harness the best for everyone. Where is the power struggle and ego when we are on the same team?

Have you heard organizations say that they’re all on the same team, but individual decision making, the myth of meritocracy, and even power hoarding are the flavors of the day? Of course, you have. I can honestly say that I have NEVER witnessed these elements at Frontline….. never.

2. I see you. I see your brilliance. At Frontline, the sum of the whole is better than any of one of its parts. This is a practice that I believe is intuitively in its DNA. I have never actually heard anyone speak these words. I have only seen it play out in practice. Every team member is highly accomplished in books and in living. The critical mass of the team is comprised of Black folx. About 98% of the team is comprised of people of color. This translates to the majority of the team understanding and naming first-hand what it means to be “othered” and presumed to be “less than”.

There is a deference and honoring that takes place when each person is speaking. There is no “I am speaking” moments. There is bult in empathy. There is learning across project teams and across the organization. People are seen, heard, and valued. I was going to write that people are invited in… but I realized that’s not actually the case. Everyone is in the house together.

3. No codeswitching. No covering. The use of the term house was intentional. When you are home you aren’t code switching and covering. Now, you don’t leave old food everywhere because you care about your crew who is living in the house with you. I hate when people say “be your authentic self”. So, I’ll say you can be, are expected to be, and the foundation is set to support you in being you, all of you.

We share our true considerations concerning clients. We also speak to our own limitations in knowledge, skills, abilities, and capacity. All of this is done in free-flow. There isn’t a special meeting called for these matters. They are a part of discussing the work. We realize and own that #DoingTheWork means being transparent and vulnerable, or embracing risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure.[i] There is psychological safety in the very DNA of Frontlines that makes this second nature.

4. Shared aspirations. There is a belief that we want to not only do the best we can, but also be the best versions of ourselves for one another, and our ecosystem.

5. Connection. I have never worked at a place where I would pretty much make my way to the wedding, funeral, or whatever else of every single team member without one question or an ounce of resentment. I would just do it. Noteworthy, I don’t even know everyone in “that way”. Like I haven’t eaten at their homes and known folx for over even two years.

6. Honoring. I have never worked at a place where I invited and receive all critical feedback with open hands and an open heart. I work diligently to want to understand and to improve — not because I want to be better and do better for my sake, but because I want to preserve the sanctity of the space and organization. I don’t want to dilute any of its essence and the haven that it provides — — of peace, faith, care, empathy, resistance, brilliance, community, and hope.

7. Humble Learners. The leadership of brilliant Black partners is steeped in humility and learning. They are constantly seeking and embracing new ideas and new ways, new thoughts, and possibilities. They ask: what do you think? How would that work? And they say: Let’s try it and see. There are no greedy and rigid Knowers. This modeling sets an expectation and gives permission for the rest of us to show up like this.

When things didn’t work out as hoped, there was humility and transparency. There wasn’t a blame game. There was a slow down to pace learning. There was inclusion of staff. There was unpacking about what didn’t work well and a group understanding about what next steps would look like.

8. Intersectionality. Intersectionality is a known fact embedded and embraced in the Frontline DNA. It didn’t even cross my mind to state in the first point that our CEO is a queer Black woman. That has nothing to do with this not being visible and within the lens that we see her and absolutely love her. It just is. And that’s just how intersectionality is across our team. It just is. We’re not out here taking classes and workshops to learn what the term means and how it impacts our work or to make a case for why we need to respect each other. It just is.

Intersectionality isn’t any more real or present at Frontline than anywhere else, but we see it, hold it, and embrace it as a fact. Intersectionality is not something that we have to remember, or force ourselves to figure out, or ask one another to name all their markers and then educate us, and then remind us again. Oh, and then keep forgiving us when we resist, ignore, and make invisible aspects of one another’s very identity.

9. Expand. Contract. Rock Steady. As an organization that was didn’t have the backing of years of pay from McKinsey, BCG, mama, daddy, or other funding models- Frontlines is still standing. It came to be when DEI wasn’t cool and blackness wasn’t even the flavor of the day. I’m gonna say: there was Black brilliance, the audacity of a dream, and maxed out credit cards, dodging mortgage payments, and deferring a salary for over a year. Frontline didn’t obtain a line of credit until it was seven years old. (For all the VCs out there, this is a flag to tell you, you need to reassess what “making it” looks like, and understand what brilliance and success is made of.)

The company has weathered storms of learning and market demands. It’s still here and thriving. Departures happen with generosity and care. Frontlines compensates and takes care of the team, equitably.

10. Relationship over task. It goes a long way to hear your CEO saying that one of their main agitation points is seeing team members being mistreated by clients. But you will never forget when you call the CEO in the midst of a client engagement to share that a client has stepped out of bounds (yelling, etc) and you ask if you should try to save the engagement, and the CEO first asks if you are ok and then says- No, I trust you. If we have to let it go, that’s fine. (Yes, this was a high dollar client.)

At the beginning of every Frontline engagement its explicitly stated that Frontline values relationship over task. We’ve let some engagements go when clients are on a time bend to check the box as opposed to taking the time to understand the issues, learn from them, and absorb what should be learned in the moment. This includes how to talk to your Black consultants. How to be willing to follow the Asian and Black talent that you hired for their subject-matter expertise. If we can’t teach you how to see people of color, queer people, and work with us equitably, how can we support your ability to implement equity work? This is not a check the box game. There are over 99 consultants who will do this, and Frontlines ain’t one.

But you will get invaluable lessons, insights, and feedback on how to work with people who may not look like your team or even your clients. That is a gamechanger for most organizations who don’t have the first inkling on how to do this, successfully.

11. There’s laughter and there’s tears, without shame. There are clearings made just for our humanity. This doesn’t look like folx being woo woo and unable to get shit done. It looks like a community that cares for its members and sees and values their humanity- and gets shit done.

12. As much of a haven as Frontline can seem to be, the reality of the world is acknowledged. This is not Candyland. And, there is a net of care to catch one another. During the harsh summer of 2020, the office was closed for Liberation Fridays- and that was that. A decision was made by leadership to create space for self-care. Noteworthy, that was also one of the busiest summers and pay was not docked and there was not an expectation that you work 40 hours within four days.

13. The Founder wears the dopest hoodies and sweats.

14. The CEO has a crazy sneaker collection.

15. One Sr. Partner can be found enjoying nature and the outdoors at any moment. (This includes during client calls.) He is man of the wilderness.

16. One Sr. Partner is steady and smiling- even when shit is on fire.

Frontline Solutions has created a space where Black folx, other people of color, and white staff are cared for and connected, while being brilliant. I have never seen this accomplished to this extent within any organization I’ve worked in or within any client organizations. Perhaps the observations shared above will support others in building cultures of inclusion and psychological safety. Frontline is not a place where we’re striving for perfection, but rather where we honor healing, connection, and compassion. It’s clear that Frontline has much to celebrate in its 16th year and it’s so very worthy to be celebrated. You can find Frontline at its too dope new site.

[i] Vulnerability as defined by Dr. Brene’ Brown.

Aiko is Founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting, a leadership development agency that focuses on emotional intelligence. NYT Best Seller: You Are Your Best Thing.