Mycenaean Exclusive: Clay Aiken reflects on life, politics, career to date

Clay Aiken speaks about himself during a video for this year's political campaign.

In eighth grade at Leesville Road Middle School, Clay Aiken interviewed former Governor Terry Sanford for an essay about someone he admired. While most students talked to their youth minister, dance teacher, or scout leader, Aiken called up the former governor–who helped create the N.C. community college system and RTP, who consolidated the university system, who was the only governor in the South to speak out against segregation in the sixties–and talked to him about his career and his propensity for standing up for things that weren’t always popular, but were always important.

And now, after American Idol, the National Inclusion Project and his run for office, it is clear Aiken is acting in Sanford’s image.

Aiken, born and raised in North Carolina, ran for Congress in an effort to give back to his home state–to use everything at his disposal to help people in his community, though this campaign was certainly not his first attempt at helping others. Running for office–despite his defeat–was just a new way of doing it.

“People being able to say that I have used the microphone that I got to bring attention to things that weren’t getting attention brought to them, to be able to tell people’s stories, to be able to get folks to be engaged in issues they normally wouldn’t be engaged in… lives a lot longer than any CD sales,” said Aiken.

Despite where he is today, during his time at Leesville, Aiken never thought he would go into politics. He didn’t think he would sing either. Then, Aiken saw himself teaching.

“I had planned to be a teacher, I had planned to be in the classroom, and then this American Idol thing came along, and I said, ‘Okay, well, I’ll give it a shot.’ I could have said, ‘No, that’s not part of my plan…’ but had I done that, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunities I have today,” Aiken said.

Before Idol, Aiken taught special ed at Brentwood Elementary and worked at YMCA summer camps and after school programs. There, in addition to learning so much from the kids, Aiken witnessed his special ed kids–and thousands of others–being barred from going to the after school programs and summer camps that he ran in the afternoons and summer. The YMCA didn’t have the training or the resources to include the kids with autism or other disabilities into their regular programs.

“In schools, there are laws that say children with disabilities have to be included… But there’s not law that requires [these] kids get included outside of public educational facilities,” said Aiken.

Aiken mentioned the inequity on Idol, and, rather suddenly, people started sending checks to Aiken’s mother’s house, made out to “The Clay Aiken Foundation.” Two months after Idol, there were over $50,000 worth of checks made out to this foundation that, at the time, did not exist.

“I decided to turn [the money] into something real… so we started [the National Inclusion Project],” said Aiken.

That vision of what his newfound notoriety could do became the basis of what is now called The National Inclusion Project.

The National Inclusion Project is exactly what its name implies–an effort to better include special needs kids in programs across the United States, including camps and after school. The Project trains after school programs, encouraging them to include kids with disabilities. Aiken’s influence is the reason our local YMCA now incorporates special needs kids in all of their programs, and his influence with the National Inclusion Project has done the same in many other places.

Whether his work with the National Inclusion Project or across the globe with UNICEF, Aiken has a well-established record of helping people, hands-on, and his impact on others’ lives is all he could ever hope to be known for.

“There’s being known for selling a lot of albums, there’s being known for winning awards, there’s being known for being famous, or there’s those folks who are remembered for having done something that had a lasting impression outside of the entertainment world… Respect and doing something that impacts peoples lives in a positive way is going to end up lasting longer,” Aiken said.

All that he’s done, coupled with his belief that there is a way to help people through politics, makes it no surprise Aiken ran for office, but there were certainly aspects of what he learned during his campaign that surprised and unsettled him, including the importance of money.

“We all grow up and pay attention to politics and believe–and hope, really–the most important things in electing our officials are what their positions are, and what they’ve done or haven’t done, or their ability to do the job…[but] I think nowadays money has a much stronger place in politics than anybody quite understands,” said Aiken.

Aiken also sees voter apathy as one of the biggest problems today–due to hundreds of reasons, like not thinking one vote matters, the nastiness of politics, and gerrymandered districts.

“Folks are very ticked off at how partisan politics has become… Most of the people in this country live within twenty yards of the fifty yard line. Everybody is a little bit to the right, or a little bit to the left… And then there’s another twenty percent that are far in the end zone, and the only people who participate are [those people],” said Aiken.

Aiken believes one part of alleviating voter apathy lies in ensuring people know their vote matters. Decisions about college loans and interest rates are being made by the politicians people are and are not voting for–politics, however nasty, affects everyone.

After every impressive thing he has done, there is one lesson Aiken wishes he had learned earlier, and it goes back to his eighth grade report on Terry Sanford: the importance of staying true to yourself, in life and politics.

“[Sanford] is still the person who I consider to be not just a political idol, but a personal idol because he… didn’t temper his opinions or change his views or become somebody other people believed he should be… That’s the way to be successful in life…[staying] true to yourself,” said Aiken.

14 Comments on "Mycenaean Exclusive: Clay Aiken reflects on life, politics, career to date"

  1. An excellent article about an inspirational man.

  2. Well written and sincere article. However Clay uses his voice, I am proud to support him.

  3. Kudos to the Mycenaean for a very well-written article that captures who Clay Aiken is as a human being, someone who demonstrated passion about making a positive difference even before he gained the huge public platform he won in 2003. Like his idol, Terry Sanford, Clay realizes the power of education to open doors for everyone who has aspirations for a better life. Clay himself keeps learning. His political campaign was an education with some surprising new revelations. I was moved by his wistful reference to being reminded of the importance of always being true to yourself, the lesson Mr. Sanford had early taught him through the example of his own life and political career. Your article spurred me to do research on Mr. Sanford and his impressive achievements and legacy and how he fought for what he believed, ignoring political expediency and standing up against powerful political opposition. Though I would be immensely saddened if Clay shelved his entertainment career permanently – he is so very gifted as a singer, comic actor, writer, MC, all round entertainer, and SO much more – he certainly has the ideals, intelligence, ethics, commitment and passion for learning and for advocacy to become an outstanding public servant to the benefit not only of North Carolina but also the nation. North Carolina should be proud to claim him as a native son! I salute the Mycenaean staff for demonstrating such a professional level of reporting in this wonderful, insightful profile of a truly outstanding LRHS alumnus!

  4. What a wonderful article! Being true to yourself is surely the key to living a successful and satisfying life. There is much that needs mending in today’s world, and I pray the younger generation filled with new ideas and stamina will take on the task of securing fairness and equality for everyone.

  5. Very nicely done interview. I have linked to it on my site. Thank you!

  6. marujita martelino | December 15, 2014 at 8:52 pm |

    A very well written article about a wonderful and sincere man.

  7. I have been a fan of Clay Aiken for 11 years, and will continue to be wherever his path may lead. He is the most devoted, caring man I know, and has and is devoting his life to children’s’ causes both here and all over the world. I am 80 years old and have never been struck by any other human being as I have been affected by him. As a fan, I have learned his compassion and giving ways that’ve made me and the many thousands of people who feel the same way, better people. I hope Clay continues on his political journey in his State of Nirth Carolina since I know that if were to run again in 2016, the people in his district would benefit greatly if they voted for him. They know not what they missed this time around; hopefully, they will wake up! Thanks for this wonderful review!

  8. Wonderful article. Thumbs up to the editor and writer!

    Thank you.

  9. Sharron Andrews | December 15, 2014 at 6:01 pm |

    I enjoyed this very well written artical very much. I have always been a fan of Clay’s and know what a good person he is. Glad to hear that he will continue to help to make better lives for the handicaped. I hope that he will consider running for office again, although I would not be able to vote for him as I live in Connecticut.

  10. This is a very nice article about one of your alumni, Clay Aiken. He is a man who is dedicated to helping others and has proved that over and over. I notice the name of your school paper is “Mycenaean” I have just been to Greece and toured the area of Mycenae. Does your paper have a connection to this area?

  11. Joyce Miller | December 15, 2014 at 3:43 pm |

    great article about a great person!

  12. Thank you for this excellent article about Clay Aiken. It was interesting to read some of the thoughts Clay had as he made the decision to run for office. Clay is an intelligent man who truly wants to make the world a better place. I do hope he knows that he has made a huge difference in the lives of many people.

    Thank you again for this article/interview. I look forward to reading more articles in the future.

  13. Thanks for the nice interview, very well done!

  14. thoughtful article highlighting the importance of using your voice. Nicely done

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