“When someone whines about what they can possibly do if it’s really true that voting won’t fix everything, hand them this book. When someone proposes violence as the only serious option available, hand them this book.”David Swanson, WarIsACrime.org & OpEd News
In 2005, I was amazed by the Harry Potter fan-phenomenon. The franchise was the highest selling work of fiction in the history of literature. It cut across cultures. Besides the Koran, it was the most requested book in the Guantánamo Bay prison. Fans invested enormous resources into conferences, wrote reams of fan fiction, started Quidditch sports leagues and tournaments and birthed an entire genre of music: Wizard Rock, with literally hundreds of bands, all singing about Harry Potter.
And yet, I was frustrated.
“If Harry Potter were in our world,” I realized, “he’d do more than talk about Harry Potter. If we really were fans of the books, we should fight injustice in our world, the way Harry did in his.” In the books, Harry starts a student activist group called Dumbledore’s Army that wakes the media and government to Voldemort’s return. I wanted to create a Dumbledore’s Army in our own world that could wake our media and governments to stop global warming and end genocide in Darfur. By tapping into a teenager’s narrative connection to Harry Potter, such an organization could create a fun and accessible point of entry into what could otherwise be intimidating social issues.
In mid-2005, I met up with Harry and the Potters, two brothers, both indie rock musicians who dress as Harry Potter and sing wildly popular punk songs at concerts with audiences in the hundreds and sometimes thousands. Together, we and a few others founded the Harry Potter Alliance: a “novel” approach to activism, and began using social media to organize the Harry Potter fanbase. Harry and the Potters reposted my action alerts to their 60,000 followers. Soon, other Wizard Rock bands were reposting the alerts. The biggest fan sites, like The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet, caught on and media coverage followed, with J. K. Rowling praising the group in Time magazine and on her own site. Soon the HPA was organizing amongst almost every facet of the Harry Potter fandom, and grew to seventy volunteer staff and over ninety chapters around the world.
To date, the HPA has sent five cargo planes of relief supplies to Haiti, donated 90,000 books to needy communities and schools across the world, and has made strides in advocating for human rights, LGBTQ equality, media reform and net neutrality.
J. K. Rowling once worked for Amnesty International. She believes in human rights and other core progressive values and has woven them deeply into the stories. The HPA leverages the identification that millions of young readers have with Harry’s values, as well as the rich story parallels between his world and our own. Dumbledore’s Army fought media consolidation by the Daily Prophet and Wizarding Wireless Network; the HPA fights for net neutrality. Inspired by Harry, who fought inequality facing werewolves, half-giants, and Muggleborns, HPA members have set records phone banking for Massachusetts Equality. We’ve advocated for indigenous rights just as Dumbledore worked for centaur rights, and just as Hermione organized for equal wages, the HPA “Not in Harry’s Name” campaign is challenging Warner Brothers to make all Harry Potter chocolate Fair Trade.
HPA has over ninety offline chapters worldwide, and relies on distributed action events as a way to act in unison. Our most successful actions have centered on the midnight releases of new Potter films. (They’re simultaneous and worldwide, and people are already going, so it’s a great organizing opportunity.) We ask supporters to organize a specific offline action in the movie theater line that goes with the theme of the film. Fan sites are more eager to advertise for this event, as they are already hyping the movie release. At one release night, the New York Times showed up at our flagship event, and we gathered thousands of petition signatures from people all over the world asking Warner Brothers to make all Harry Potter chocolate Fair Trade. Distributed actions around movie releases is a tactical approach that can be neatly put to work by other campaigns doing culture-based organizing.
Meet people where they’re at, not where you want them to be. Harry Potter has tens of millions of young fans. HPA went to that fanbase as a fan, and then from there to the political issues. HPA has also hooked into another huge base of young people: nerds. Fan and nerd culture make up a huge section of the most active people online, and nerdy teenagers are using the Internet to come together in unprecedented ways (just google HP, Hunger Games, Whedon or Dr. Who). The Nerdfighters (“nerds using the power of their awesome to fight world suck”) are already starting to do for nerd-dom what HPA has done for Harry Potter fans. Remember to speak your group’s language and start with the values they would most readily respond to.
We need to organize through narratives on three levels: personal, collective, and mythological. The personal is your or your constituents’ individual story; the collective is the story of a nation or group; the mythological is the deeper, archetypal language of the psyche. Think: Avatar fans fighting against the Sky People (aka the coal industry) to protect the Pandora for our world. History’s villains — Hitler, bin Laden and mining companies — work the mythological level, the good guys must, too. In its best moments, the Harry Potter Alliance is engaging in this kind of cultural dreamwork and cultural acupuncture.
People congregate online around common interests, but long for offline and real-world connection. Give it to them. Offer the big fan websites and group leaders a chance to make a difference (they normally want it) while demonstrating how it will help them engage their audience more deeply. Have a project for them with a solid ask that is authentically in the language of their site/fandom. Use social media playfully, and with a healthy balance of the three P’s: patience, persistence, and pizzazz.