ATLANTA — On a Thursday afternoon, about 15 students gathered in a classroom at B.E.S.T Academy in Atlanta. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary; just a few young men soaking up knowledge.
At the front of the classroom, Keith Strickland paused a video playing on a flat-screen.
“What did y’all take away from that?” he asked.
The video featured an interview with the late Kobe Bryant. The basketball star explained why he started taking helicopters to his training. Bryant still wanted to put in work on the court, but also wanted to be present for his family. He couldn’t do both effectively if he was sitting in Los Angeles traffic.
A student raised his hand to answer Strickland’s question.
“Family time is everything. You can’t get that back," he said. "Time don’t wait on nobody.”
Conversations continued before Strickland said in a low voice, “Y’all know my background. Convicted felon.”
It might be a good time to point out that Stickland isn’t a teacher at B.E.S.T. At least, he's not a teacher in the traditional sense.
“I sold drugs across the country,” Strickland told 11Alive. “Made over $1 million selling drugs.”
An Atlanta native, Strickland was raised in and by the streets of Bankhead and Campbellton. He’d already sold drugs and was arrested by 13.
“I caused a lot of damage out here. We caused a lot of violence,” he said, matter-of-factly.
At 16, he was a convicted felon.
“I became a convicted felon before I even knew what the definition of a felony was,” he added.
He didn’t finish high school and, before the age of 25, Strickland was arrested nearly 50 times and served five years total behind bars. At one point, Strickland was kidnapped, beaten, robbed and left for dead.
“A lot of times, we look at children and we say, ‘What made you do that bad action or how did you get involved in this thing?’ But we don’t see the life circumstances the child is living through.”
Strickland’s childhood circumstances involved growing up in an abusive home.
“My father had money,” he told the students. “But, my mom, it looked like she had to do whatever he wanted. So, I figured if I could make money, she wouldn’t have to go through that.”
At 5 years old, Strickland’s view of the world was painted in colors of blood and drugs. If you ask Strickland, he’ll tell you, very simply, he never liked or wanted to sell drugs or commit crimes. But it’s what he knew. What he thought he had to do to survive.
“I used to go play at crack houses. So, I’m learning this behavior when I’m just a kid trying to play with one of his friends,” he said. “I never had a mentor. So, I attached myself to people in the streets because they were there.”
In 2007, Keith faced 35 years in prison but was released early. The judge, saw something in him.
“Lotta times it’s not a moment when a person wants to change their life but it’s a moment when opportunity comes when a person can change their life,” Keith said.
After prison, doors that were closed before, where now padlocked -- permanently keeping Strickland out because of labels like criminal, felon, drug-dealer.
“When nobody believes in you, you got to believe in yourself enough,” he said.
Frustrated with the lack of job opportunities, Strickland started selling something new: a vision, a dream, a new way of being.
He started his own company, Making the Transition (MTT), implementing programs across the country and helping in prisons, court systems and governments. His goal: try to help people unlearn the things that were hurting them and learn the things that could help them.
In the years that followed, Strickland would work as a consultant during the Obama administration; working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office creating initiatives to help people with criminal backgrounds get jobs.
MTT would establish programs ranging from behavioral therapy to intervention and outreach.
“The programs are specific to each community,” Strickland said. “What works for one isn’t going to work for all.”
He soon realized he could make an impact by getting into the minds and relating to young people before they made mistakes.
So, he turned in Dr. Tim Jones with B.E.S.T. Academy in 2014. Jones helped Strickland turn a vision into a curriculum. Six years later, in 2020, Strickland is still holding programs and classes on a wide range of topics at the school.
“His message is even more poignant, his message is even more riveting because he is them,” Jones said, explaining his connection to students.
Strickland aimed to make a positive impact in young men’s lives - especially since he holds himself responsible for his past actions contributing to a cycle.
“A lot of these children that are in the school right now, they grew up in a home where their parents were using the drums that we sold,” Strickland said. “So, we made an impact on their lives not even knowing it.”
Talking to and reaching students wouldn’t need a lot of research. Strickland simply looked at his own childhood; played back the horrors that blocked his path - murdered friends and crack house playgrounds.
“A lot of us come from the same neighborhood, same backgrounds,” Stickland said.
Sixteen-year-old BEST sophomore Amani Bedwa echoed in agreement.
“A lot of us have the same challenges that we face in our local communities, whether its violence or drugs,” he said.
In the classroom, Keith is trying to turn the page to a different chapter in young black men’s lives.
“This is just a phase of where you’re at in the process,” Strickland told the students.
Instead of talking at them, Strickland encouraged them to use their voice. So, they know they have a say in what happens.
They’re listening, empathizing, and understanding they’re on the cusp of making life decisions that can impact everyone around them.
“My goal is to be a role model for the people under me,” one student with aspirations of becoming a musician said proudly. “Especially for my nephew, because he don’t have no male role models right now. Everyone he see ain’t doing too much.”
Bedwa spoke up, sharing how he recognized the need to be active in the lives of his younger brothers.
“I don’t want them to see me as kind of absent,” said Bedwa. “Making sure I don’t slip up because I have them watching. And I have to make sure I have to do everything in my power with my success that I have to bring them up in the same success as well.”
The flow of ideas, words, inspiration, motivation, and resolutions can be found in any one of Strickland’s programs. But he sees there’s more work than one more can do alone.
“Every year about 25 kids in our program are murdered and that’s in just one city and we have programs across the country,” he said.
Strickland added that the one big piece that’s still missing is adult accountability. Simply put, wanting children to be better than the adults around them is a big ask.
“It’s not our children who are failing us, it’s us who are failing our children. There’s a child out there who is dying because nobody was ever in their life. There’s a child out there who is willing to break into someone’s car because they’re hungry. We don’t see that that’s a child doing their best to strive while dealing with circumstances the average adult wouldn’t even know how to navigate through,” he said.
So, that’s what’s happening in the B.E.S.T classroom and many other classrooms using Strickland’s programs.
It’s more than a former drug dealer telling young men to step up. It’s a man showing those behind him how to take steps toward a better life.
“So many of us would throw our life away trying to be at peace with a world that don’t even care if we live or die. If you have opportunity on the table and you don’t use it, someone else will use your opportunity,” Strickland told students before the end of the day.
When the bell rings and they walk back out into the world, Strickland hopes they know if he can make the transition, they can too.
“It’s not for children to pave the way for themselves," he said. "It’s up to the adults to make a way for the children in the communities.”
Currently, Strickland said he is working to create new programs in Rockdale County as well as a program with the city of Atlanta to help keep children and teenagers from getting in trouble.