By Joe Murchison
This is one of a series of profiles in Laurel’s mayoral race.
Keith Sydnor, 55, grew up poor in an underserved community, part of Petersburg, Va., with a single mother and five siblings. Had he followed in the footsteps of his peers, his life would likely be different now. “Most of my closest friends, they didn’t finish [high] school,” he said.
But Sydnor chose a different path. “The elders in the community always took a liking to me because of the respect I had for them,” he said. He made a habit of aiding older neighbors, picking up groceries and medicines, taking out trash, caring for pets. He even spent nights at neighbors’ homes when they needed company.
Those relationships were a positive influence in Sydnor’s life, and he especially remembers a mentor of his, Otis Scott Jr., who was an Army veteran and college graduate. Scott took Sydnor to sports events and introduced him to a circle of ambitious friends, including a young woman who was on her way to becoming a doctor. “[Scott] just poured into my life,” Sydnor said.
These positive influences helped launch Sydnor’s careers in the Navy and in state and federal justice systems; during his stint as a correctional officer, he even earned his college degree. Sydnor was elected to the Laurel City Council in 2017. Throughout all of these experiences, Sydnor carved out time to mentor youth and serve his community.
In his youth, Sydnor joined a Police Explorers Program, where officers “saw potential in the way I was moving.” He joined the Navy out of high school only because he couldn’t become a police officer until he turned 21.
A firefighter and damage-control specialist and petty officer first class, he sailed to many parts of the world, including Scotland, the Persian Gulf, Hong Kong, Japan and Russia. While in Japan, he joined the Japanese-African American Friendship Association to connect with Japanese citizens. In Russia, he found residents of Vladivostok curious about his blackness: “An older lady was rubbing my skin. I said, ‘It doesn’t come off.’”
He was also stationed near his hometown in a military recruiting office in Richmond, Va. He spent some of his off-duty hours volunteering in a lunch-buddy program at a local public elementary school, and mentored one of the students for years. They even drove to Chambersburg, Pa., so the student could meet Sydnor’s mentor, Otis Scott. “That was a cool moment,” Sydnor recalled.
After 10 years in the Navy, Sydnor left active duty in 1996. He signed up for the Reserves and was hired by the Virginia Department of Corrections. He spent a year working as a correctional officer at the state’s maximum-security prison in Jarrett, keeping order and calm in an often-hostile environment. “There are a lot of dangerous moments,” he said. “You get threatened every day.” Once when he reported to a floor where a fellow officer had been beaten badly, one of the inmates said, “You’re next, Sydnor.”
Even more memorable was a compliment from a lifer, who told him how much he appreciated Sydnor’s calming presence and how he treated inmates with respect. “I felt like, ‘This is why I’m here,’” Sydnor said.
In 1997, Sydnor signed on with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and worked at a detention center in Brooklyn, and then at a prison back in his hometown. While working full-time in Petersburg, he enrolled in classes at Virginia State University and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in 2002. He also volunteered with a program to facilitate discussions between court-involved youth and their parents and coached football in a city recreation program.
In 2003, Sydnor took a job with a federal agency, the Pretrial Services Agency for the District of Columbia, where he supervised people accused of crimes as they prepared to go to trial. When he first moved to the area, he stayed with a friend from Petersburg who was living at Steward Manor Apartments in Laurel. He realized he liked the area and has lived in the city ever since. In 2006, he bought his first home at Vistas II, where he served as vice president of the HOA.
Sydnor worked for the agency until 2019, helping to unionize the employees. “If it weren’t for unions, we wouldn’t have middle-class America,” he said. During this time he also deployed twice with the Navy Reserves, first to Kuwait and then Afghanistan. He also became a certified drug addictions counselor, volunteered as a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, coached sports teams with the Bowie and Greenbelt Boys and Girls clubs, and assisted with a children’s science program in Southeast D.C..
Sydnor’s proudest moments in his six years as a city councilman have come as he’s worked with residents to resolve issues. Notably, he has connected tenants behind on their rent with a city program that leverages funds provided by the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Sydnor has been working as a substitute teacher in local Prince George’s County schools since 2020. He also serves as a mentor with the Prince George’s County chapter of 100 Black Men of America.
Reflecting, Sydnor boiled it all down: “Everywhere I live, I get involved in the community.”