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.