Inspiring youth to engage in activating democracy and emerge as game changers

The story behind Ultimate Civics

My father gave me my first civics lesson. I was a middle school student in the late 1960s when he sued the state of Wisconsin over use of DDT, a biocide (pesticide) that was killing far more than mosquitoes. My father was concerned about the health of his three young children and the birds that were literally dropping out of trees and dying. He gave me Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, to read. I saw how it empowered people with knowledge to take action to halt the wide-spread poisoning our environment. DDT was banned nation-wide in 1972.

No one taught me then that I could do something to help during the DDT days. I was among the two generations of youth who did not have the benefit of civics lessons in middle or high school.

Years later, I was a commercial salmon fisherma’am in Alaska where the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989. At the time, this was the largest oil spill in the United States. I had a PhD in marine toxicology with a focus in oil pollution, and I remembered my father’s leadership in the DDT battle. I set to work on the health and environmental problems caused by this disaster. This led to a life-long commitment to transition off oil and other fossil fuels, because as long as we drill, we spill.

And in the midst of writing, Not One Drop, a creative nonfiction story of this disaster and its legacy, it dawned on me: this is more than an oil disaster – it’s a democracy crisis. Ultimate Civics was created in 2009, as a project of Earth Island Institute, right after a nine month book tour during the economic meltdown that convinced me the people of this nation were ready to amendment the U.S. Constitution: corporations are not persons and money is not speech.

The civics lessons that began with my father’s actions have been refined by much practice and use and by many suggestions from youth and adults in communities in over 30 states. The lessons are offered in the spirit of solidarity and building strong children in our intergenerational movement to constantly improve our democracy experiment – a government of, for, and by the people.

Riki Ott, Director
Ultimate Civics

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