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

The story behind Ultimate Civics

By Riki Ott, National Program Director

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 informed action of concerned citizens halted the wide-spread poisoning of our environment with DDT 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.

In the midst of writing Not One Drop, a creative nonfiction story of this disaster, the real legacy dawned on me: this is more than an oil disaster – it’s a democracy crisis. Dealing with the Alaska State Legislature and the U.S. Congress was new to me, but not my friends Gershon Cohen, PhD, and Lisa Marie Jacobs. They were already aware that the authority of individual citizens had been usurped by economic interests that wielded human rights as “artificial persons.”

The three of us co-founded Ultimate Civics in 2009, as a project of Earth Island Institute, after my nine-month book tour during the economic meltdown convinced me that the people of this nation were ready to amend the U.S. Constitution to establish that: the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution are the rights of natural (human) persons only; and the spending of money to influence elections is not protected speech under the First Amendment. As Ultimate Civics, we also co-founded the national grassroots organization MoveToAmend with this same goal.

Gershon took a state-based approach and created our We the People Alaska program. Lisa Marie and I developed a new scholastic approach to United States civics for middle and high schools.

Our Activating My Democracy 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, National Program Director

Gershon Cohen, Alaska Program Director

Lisa Marie Jacobs, Advisor and Marketing

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