Ben Felton, senior vice president, Fossil Generation, shared a personal moment that shifted his thinking on the value of diversity and inclusion. 

Ben and his family live in a suburban city in metro Detroit, and one morning last June, soon after George Floyd’s murder, he left home early for a doctor’s appointment.  

One of his four children texted him while he was in the waiting room: “Where are you?” 

He explained he was fine, and that it was just a dermatologist appointment, not a big deal, thinking she was worried because she thought he was having a health issue. When he got home later that day, his wife explained their daughter’s reaction.  

“You do realize why she was so fearful of you going to the doctor’s office?” she said. “She was upset because you left home and drove away from the house by yourself, and you’re a Black man.”  

“That completely set me back on my heels, because it’s never really resonated with me, not to that degree, and it’s changed me,” Ben said. “Now, I’m very much cognizant of where I go and what I do. It’s caused me to double down on my efforts for everyone to recognize that we are all different, that diversity and inclusion goes beyond race.”  

One of the first things Ben did was find the right people to serve as champions for diversity and inclusion in Fossil Generation: Brian Kincaid, plant director, Central & South Area Operations, and Justin Morren, plant director, Belle River Power Plant. 

Brian and Justin created a team, chaired by Brandi Whack, plant retirement process lead, to work with people at all FosGen locations on the goals and issues that matter most.  

Organization chart of the Fossil Generation Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Team

Site ambassadors represent 15 locations throughout Michigan, plus one in Wisconsin. Each site developed its own DEI plan, unique to its culture and needs, aligning with FOSGEN’s overall goals and priorities. 

The Fossil Generation Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team met with their site ambassadors once a month, and collaborated with coworkers in Legal, Human Resources, Ethics, union leaders, Corporate Communications and Organizational Learning.  

“When I was asked to help lead diversity, equity and inclusion for Fossil Generation, I questioned whether I was the right person,” Brian said. “I’m a middle-aged white guy from rural Alabama, and last summer, going through all the stuff that was around us, with the protests, and Black Lives Matters, I struggled with trying to make sense of it all. I’m raising a four-year old foster child who is Black, and I’m trying to figure out how the heck am I going to explain to my little girl about what’s going on, how am I going to teach her about her legacy, her history … it made it very real for me.” 

Brian manages FosGen’s Thriving Culture committee that’s focused on engagement and training, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.  

He realized the first thing they had to do was ensure the strategy included breaking apart the stereotype that diversity is only race-based.  

“When you look at diversity, you can have five guys who look just like me, and we can be the most diverse individuals,” said Brian. “It can be because of how we were raised, the environment we grew up in, the exposures we’ve had in life, our education, age, gender, whether we are new to our career versus experienced – all these things can be the determining factor in how drastic the difference is in way we look at things. Respecting differences, whatever they may be, is key to building the relationships we need to be successful.”  

While people weren’t opening up at first, the key in driving that change was FosGen’s Word of the Week, where they roll out discussions around it on their 7:30 a.m. call every Friday.  

Leaders have until that following Thursday to ask a couple key questions regarding that specific word, with their teams in huddles, and taking turns within the teams to lead that conversation, to maximize meaningful participation from all. 

“I challenged Brandi to think of our DEI work as a never-ending project and while I provided high-level guidelines, she created something that had everything I asked for, and more, leading our team with creating efficient workstreams and meaningful priorities,” Brian said. “It’s a prime example of why diversity is important, because the combined thought process between the two of us, built something that is now being benchmarked across the company. If I would have told her to do ‘A, B, and C,’ it wouldn’t have been that way.” 

Brian said he’s had discussions in the past year with different employees, that he knows for a fact, ten years ago, would not have happened. But now, he says, they’re learning opportunities. 

“I had no clue that the person was thinking the way they were or viewed something the way they did. They were able to explain why they felt the way they did, I was able to explain why I felt the way I felt, and then I was able to better understand how what we’re talking about impacts them,” Brian said. 

“And it’s really changed how people understand and view each other, once you have those conversations.” 

He added that it’s very difficult for a metric-driven organization to go through this process, because how does one measure how much one has learned? How does someone measure how much they’re opening up?  

“You can’t measure it,” Brian said. “For an engineering-based organization to take that step, to go off gut-feel, is pretty incredible.” 

“DEI to me is about meeting people where they are without judgement, respecting differences, and working collaboratively as a team to achieve mutual outcomes,” Brandi said. “At a basic level treating each other as human beings and living DTE values and our service keys every day.”