The 20 Men Project Wants to Change the Racial Narrative in Chester County

Chester County's 20 Men Project is a photo exhibition that aims to demolish stereotypes.

Driving on the Route 30 bypass one day, Christine Martey-Ochola was struck by one of those electronic billboards found on highways all over the country. Like many others, this one displayed the photo of a Black male wanted by police for some undisclosed crime. As the co-chair of RACE Group PA, Martey-Ochola had been involved in many conversations about how race is adversely portrayed in our society. But that billboard touched something deeper in her.

Sparked by the international outrage over George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Martey-Ochola would come together on Zoom every Tuesday with other Chester County residents concerned that something similar might happen in their own community. “Images of Black men who are criminals can start to set the tone,” she says. “As we were having these weekly conversations, we’d always ask, ‘What’s something we can do that’s positive?’ One idea that surfaced was how we could humanize Black males in the community by documenting positive imagery.”

Elgin Bailey, Social Worker, Coatesville
Elgin Bailey, Social Worker, Coatesville

Martey-Ochola hopes to change the narrative through the 20 Men Project. The series of photos by Exton-based photographer Sandrien de Bruijn-Mesman depicts Chester County’s Black men in everyday settings, whether they’re working in an office, volunteering for a local nonprofit, engaged in a hobby or spending time with family. In all cases, subjects are identified by first name only. “I started to think about who could bring dignity to the men, and she’s the person who came to mind,” says Martey-Ochola of de Bruijn-Mesman, whom she’d met through a dance studio their children attended. “She jumped into it and has made it beyond anything I could’ve ever dreamed about.”

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Shane Ford networking team member, Penn Medicine, Middletown, Delaware
Shane Ford, Networking Team Member, Penn Medicine, Middletown, Delaware
Andre Morris Electrical Engineer/ Hip-Hop Dance Company Owner, Downingtown
Andre Morris, Electrical Engineer/ Hip-Hop Dance Company Owner, Downingtown
Ashton Simmons, West Pikeland Township Auditor/ President of Operations, Shift Capital, Chester Springs

Finding 20 willing participants among the county’s 34,000 Black residents was surprisingly difficult. It took nine months for de Bruijn-Mesman to land her first subject. “I reached out to over 100 men—people were afraid,” she says. “Black men have felt demonized for a long time, so it was very hard for them to feel that nothing negative would come out of this.”

Eric Goodman, Revenue Specialist, Penn Medicine, Media
Eric Goodman, Revenue Specialist, Penn Medicine, Media

De Bruijn-Mesman’s first subject was RACE Group PA member Larry Washington. During the shoot, he spoke of an incident that occurred at a drugstore where an employee followed him around, apparently concerned that the elderly man with a law degree from Washington. D.C.’s prestigious Georgetown University might steal something. “Larry had so many stories to share,” says de Bruijn-Mesman. “We laughed. We cried. We were silent. It was just a ‘wow’ moment. Every session was like that.”

Rob Brown, CEO, Absolute Fitness, Coatesville
Rob Brown, CEO, Absolute Fitness, Coatesville
Daryl Durnell, Special Education Teacher/ School Board Director, West Chester Area School District, West Chester
Daryl Durnell, Special Education Teacher/ School Board Director, West Chester Area School District, West Chester
Jerry Franklin, Professional Speaker/ Entrepreneur, Kennett Square
Jerry Franklin, Professional Speaker/ Entrepreneur, Kennett Square
Larry Washington, Member, Race Group PA, Atglen
Larry Washington, Member, Race Group PA, Atglen

After Washington’s photo session, things got easier for de Bruijn-Mesman. And while the title of the project remains 20 Men, 35 have participated so far. With images printed on 30-by-40-inch canvases, the exhibit went from West Chester’s Melton Center to the Chester County Library, Chester County Hospital, and the halls of public schools in Downingtown and Avon Grove. Aided by state Sen. Carolyn Comitta, it graced the rotunda at the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex. “To be seen in the capitol, where everyone’s passing through, meant so much,” says Martey-Ochola. “You can’t unsee them anymore—you have to see what amazing things these men do.”

Treci Butler, Social Studies, Teacher, Bridgeport
Treci Butler, Social Studies, Teacher, Bridgeport
Jermaine Thomas, owner, All Star Images, Barbershop/ Creative Director, Icon411, Coatesville
Jermaine Thomas, owner, All Star Images, Barbershop/ Creative Director, Icon411, Coatesville

Visit sandrienbphotography.com and racegrouppa.com.

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