10.28.09

Harry Potter Fans Commit to Issues, from Gay Rights to Genocide

Fans of Harry Potter, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and True Blood are organizing to do good in the real world.

When it comes to making the world a better place, the reasons people try to improve their communities are as diverse as the approaches they take. British monarchs built and sponsored hospitals and foundlings’ homes to prove they were using their wealth responsibly. African-Americans, women, and gay people have sparked social movements in the name of their own liberation. The members of the Harry Potter Alliance try to change the world because it’s what Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of the fictional Hogwarts Academy, would do.

Founded in 2005 to direct the energies of fans of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series toward concrete activism on issues like genocide prevention, gay rights, and fair trade, the Harry Potter Alliance largely operates like a small, enthusiastic advocacy organization. But rather than drawing their motivation from a religious value system or set of political beliefs, the organization’s members are united by their devotion to Rowling’s stories, the lessons they can glean from the text of the seven Harry Potter books, and the idea that magic is possible not simply in Harry’s world, but in ours. Many of the issues the group chooses are based, however tangentially, on Rowling’s text: The group’s work on gay rights is inspired by the sexual orientation of the Hogwarts headmaster, and its efforts on behalf of Amnesty International and anti-genocide groups are drawn from the novels’ portrayal of a magical society riven by anti-human bigotry, where both villains and heroes employ torture as a tactic. But the Harry Potter Alliance is also motivated by Albus Dumbledore’s argument that there can never be too much love in the world, a philosophy that’s allowed them to broaden their agenda.

The Harry Potter Alliance’s work on gay rights is inspired by the sexual orientation of the Hogwarts headmaster, and its efforts on behalf of Amnesty International and anti-genocide groups are drawn from the novels’ portrayal of a magical society riven by anti-human bigotry.

“The first problem we ran into when we reached the larger fan community was [people asking] ‘Why are they bringing politics in this? I come to Harry Potter to escape. I come to Harry Potter to run away from the world,’” said Andrew Slack, the Alliance’s co-founder and executive director, who turned from performing sketch comedy to pursue activism around the social and political issues he studied in college. “But I think you can do both. This is our chance to make these books real and to understand there is magic in this world, it’s just not as obvious as walking around an invisible school in the hills of Scotland.”

Within months of the organization’s founding, more than 100,000 people signed up for the group’s action alerts, and the Massachusetts-based Alliance has more than 30 staff members and 50 international chapters. Alliance members have donated 14,000 books for impoverished communities around the world, made videos to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Rawandan genocide, and called thousands of Maine residents to ask them to vote against Question 1, a ballot initiative that could overturn a state law that allows gays and lesbian couples to marry. That menu of options gives committed fans an outlet for many issues that are important to them, without requiring them to find organizations in each political area—or for them to work on campaigns that make them uncomfortable.

The organization has been so powerful because “it’s drawing on connections between people that already exist,” said Max Coleman, a high school senior who began as a volunteer with the Alliance and is about to become one of the organization’s part-time staffers. “There’s such a sense of camaraderie and of unitedness that doesn’t exist in political campaigns.”

In many of these campaigns, the Harry Potter Alliance operates like a traditional political campaign, gathering data on how individuals plan to vote, circulating petitions, and raising money. But the Alliance also relies on its members’ loyalties to Rowling’s characters. When Slack met with the company licensed by Warner Brothers to make chocolate frog candy (a treat featured in the novels), he informed the company’s general counsel that Hermione Granger, Rowling’s heroine who advocates for oppressed workers in the novels, wouldn’t approve of their labor practices, and asked them to move toward using cocoa produced under fair trade standards. The shared belief in a single story, Slack believes, can unite people without common experiences of poverty or oppression.

The Harry Potter fan community is hardly the only one engaged in charitable and political work, though the Harry Potter Alliance is the biggest and most united organization coordinating those kinds of efforts. Some chapters of the Browncoats, groups founded by fans of Joss Whedon’s short-lived fantasy television series Firefly, raise money for literacy organizations and groups that work to empower girls and women. Star Trek fans in many regions do similar fundraising, including walkathons for hospices and medical charities Slack sees political potential in the fan communities of shows like True Blood, whose vampires struggle for tolerance in a parallel of gay rights campaigns, and The Lord of the Rings novels, with their quasi-environmentalist message.

The Harry Potter Alliance plans to reach out to fans of those shows and books through the same kinds of blogs and message boards where it found its own followers, in an attempt to create what Slack jokingly calls “possibly the dorkiest coalition in human history.” But the organization is also branching off from the stories that gave it impetus, talking to former Greenpeace leaders about designing and pitching a comic-book villain who promotes climate change for his own nefarious purposes.

Slack claims people who base their work in myth have an advantage over people who don’t acknowledge the deep emotions behind public policy, whether it’s the fear of illness and death raised by the health care debate, or worries about the stability or fragility of relationships brought up by fights over equal rights for gay couples.

That traditional approach to politics is “that hand before the eyes. It’s an experience of constraint and fear and disbelief of imagination,” he says. To succeed, “you have to believe that something is not a barrier at all, but a doorway..…[and to know that] love is the most powerful form of magic.”

Get Involved: The Harry Potter Alliance organizes fans to do good.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a staff correspondent at Government Executive and writes about pop culture for The Atlantic. She blogs at http://alyssarosenberg.blogspot.com.