andrewslack

Through Harry Potter Alliance, even Muggles can do magic

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To Andrew Slack, the legalization of marriage equality in Maine isn’t just one of numerous reasons to celebrate the election or queer rights. It’s a reason to celebrate Harry Potter.

“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful success,” he tells me, while standing in line to vote on Tuesday night at his local Boston precinct. “We worked to get it passed in 2009, and we lost. We won hearts and minds, but we lost. But we didn’t give up, and if it passes tonight, it will mean a lot to the fans.”

The fans, of course, are members of the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), a seven-year-old progressive campaign project that has grown into a formidable nonprofit and a touchstone organization for rallying fans around causes that better our world.

“Think of a story that you love,” Slack, the cofounder and executive director of the HPA, told the audience at TEDx Rome last year. “[Imagine] if you were to work with other people who were moved by that story to use the message in that story to transform our world.”

Slack, who founded the group along with Harry & the Potters frontman Paul deGeorge in 2005, became interested in the Harry Potter series when his students couldn’t stop talking about the books.

“When this all began I thought it sounded really weird. And really stupid. The idea of a boy with a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead who goes to a wizarding school—I didn’t get it. But my students lit up whenever they talked about it, and I felt like I had to try it. So finally, reluctantly, I picked it up--and suddenly I was gone. I was just captivated. By the end of the first chapter, I closed the book and turned to the person next to me, and said, ‘This book just changed my life.’”

From there, Slack became obsessed with the idea of a “Dumbledore’s Army for our world.” He makes the point that if Harry Potter were alive in our world today, he’d do “a lot more than just talk about Harry Potter.” He points out that J.K. Rowling used to work for Amnesty International and calls the concept of applying pop culture and the power of story to create change a kind of “cultural acupuncture” for an age where transmedia and remix culture are a fundamental part of how we live.

Slack has ridden the wave of that life-changing moment to places few HP fans have gone. After the Harry Potter fandom drew national attention when it sent five cargo planes of relief supplies to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the HPA and Slack were suddenly in demand. In addition to making a TED appearance, Slack has served as a guest political blogger for the Huffington Post and appeared as a keynote speaker for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize forum.

All that from Harry Potter.

Slack talks about the enormity of the impact that HP has had on the people who love it: fans have not just created endless amounts of fanfiction and fanart, but also numerous international conferences devoted to the books, an international sports league based around Quidditch, and an entire musical genre in the form of wizard rock, or wrock. Given all of that energy and creativity, the work of the Harry Potter Alliance seems like just another organic arm of the fandom. Rowling went on to thank Slack and the HPA for the work they were doing, which includes fighting poverty, promoting literacy, supporting ending genocide in Darfur, working to end child slavery, and, of course, sending medical supplies to Haiti.

“We tend to come in and we never seem to know what we’re going to do,” Slack said of the previous Maine Equality project, in which Harry Potter fans made phone calls and held an awareness concert in support of the vote. “Our people don’t sign up ahead of time; they’re already online.” Slack is too modest to specify that fans come when HPA calls, but time and time again, just as with Dumbledore’s Army in the books themselves, that’s what happens.

The ability to mobilize online communities rapidly and formidably is just one of many strengths the HPA has in its favor. Not only does the organization have tremendous reach within the Harry Potter fandom, but the movement of Harry Potter fans within other parts of fandom and online communities makes the organization uniquely poised to tap into pop culture for a level of unprecedented real-world activism.

Last week, Slack and the HPA joined forces with the Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green, to use their pull with Harry Potter fans and Nerdfighters to get out the vote. The Don’t Forget to Vote, America! project was so successful that it crashed the HPA servers the night of the election.  And earlier this year, a Change.org petition to keep Lionsgate from shutting down HPA’s “Hunger is not a Game” campaign over copyright issues gained immediate national attention and resulted in the fastest successful resolution of any petition in the site’s history—along with the possibility of working with Lionsgate for the rest of the film franchise.

The Hunger Games campaign was the beginning of Imagine Better, which Slack said “is going to end up becoming an umbrella organization, not only by the people who joined HPA but by people all over the world who want to be engaged in fan activism. So [we’ll be] supporting fans of all kinds in various forms of charities.

“We also want to do something light, something easy, around Les Misérables coming up in December. In terms of children’s rights, that’s an easy fit. But I’m also talking to other organizations about how they can use imagery from Les Misérables to further their causes. …. We can consult with Occupy, and other progressive organizations and other nonprofits, on how they can use popular culture in general.”

“We’re not interested in owning the movement of fan activism so much as supporting and helping to harness it,” Slack told me. And indeed, HPA is far from being the only fandom charity out there: Sweet Charity, a project to raise money for RAINN, raised over $80,000 dollars before it ended. Likewise, the American Idol fandom raised over $100,000 in its 2009 fandom auction; and right now the Teen Wolf fandom is promoting Team Wolf Cares, a charity project devoted to hurricane relief as well as wolf conservation.

These are just examples of thousands of similar projects across fandom; but with its growing name-recognition, its increasing celebrity support—Alex Day is the most recent musician to support the group—HPA might just have the ability to do something none of them have ever quite managed.

HPA might just turn fan activism into an everyday event.

Photo via Personal Democracy