“What can I do? What can I do?”
That is the question constantly asked of Riki Ott, and not only does she have an answer, she has a whole curriculum about what citizens can do and have done to exercise their power to shape their own society. But equally instructive is the lived example of Riki herself, who demonstrates that what one can do is keep pushing, keep digging, keeping learning, and keep organizing. Her work provides a powerful illustration of what happens when someone begins down a path towards justice and refuses to relent. Now Bo Boudart has produced a short and accessible documentary called “A Concerned Citizen” to introduce audiences to Ott’s 30 years of fighting for a livable and just world.
Riki Ott was launched into activism when the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil near her fishing community in Cordova, Alaska. Her journey toward justice for that disaster led her not only to work on the frontlines of the Deepwater Horizon and Kalamazoo River spills, but also to examining the structure of corporate personhood that allows oil companies to destroy ecosystems with impunity. In all of her work to defend communities from the oil industry, she kept running into the obstacle of the corporate control of government, so she tackled that too. In 2009, with the Citizens United decision on the horizon, Ott co-founded Move to Amend to launch the movement to amend the constitution to clarify that corporations are not people and money is not speech.
This relentlessness and willingness to expand her struggle are some of Riki Ott’s defining gifts. Lots of citizens are concerned about something, but when they figure out that the battle is bigger than expected, most people back down and accept the status quo as inevitable.
This process of digging deeper and addressing one obstacle to justice after another has the potential to be frustrating or even demoralizing for an activist. If you start trying to protect clean water in your backyard, but run into all the ways that government and industry has rigged the system against your community, you might soon find yourself ten steps away from your initial target, struggling against immense institutions. But the truly inspiring thing about Riki’s journey up the chain of power is that she ends up at the grassroots, educating citizens about their power and responsibilities. When she found that the solutions needed to fix the systemic problems with our government were hindered by the lack of public understanding of the role of citizens, Riki created a civics education curriculum called “Activating My Democracy.” That civics education course has become one more tool that Riki uses to help communities across the country in their struggle against the interconnected crises of our time.
So when Riki says, “I feel like we are on the cusp of a serious revolution where people wake up and take back their power,” we know that prophecy is rooted in real-world connection with frontline communities. Because it comes from someone who has spent a lifetime ploughing the ground and planting the seeds of that revolution, this is not a prediction to be dismissed as a naive wish.
While the film fails to provide much background into Riki’s personal life and the presumed sacrifices involved in her activism, it also steers clear of the hero culture and “tireless activist” tropes that can befall activist documentaries. Calling activists “tireless” relieves us of the responsibility to join them by pretending that they possess some superhuman ability to not get tired. But the film presents Riki’s progression as simply the result of continuing to take the next logical steps necessary to protect her community. While she certainly got tired in her 30 years of that journey, she was relentless. She continued to take the next step, even if it involved the enormously daunting task of amending the constitution or the slow and mundane task of teaching civics to kids. And by framing her as a “Citizen,” the film suggests that the wide range of Riki’s activism, from the local and personal to the systemic and revolutionary, is the responsibility of all of us.