Andrew Slack used to be just an ordinary Muggle. Then the 31-year-old Harry Potter fan got the idea to start what he calls a "real-life Dumbledore's Army." The Harry Potter Alliance is a new kind of activism that draws on the sophisticated online networks of fan communities.
"There are so many of us who love Harry Potter and want to do more for our world," Slack told an audience of several hundred at a recent HPA event in Somerville, Mass., that marked the group's fifth anniversary.
About 100,000 Harry Potter fans have been mobilized by HPA for causes including marriage equality, genocide prevention and literacy. They raised enough money to send five cargo planes to Haiti bearing medical supplies after the earthquake there, and they've bought thousands of books for libraries in Rwanda and the Mississippi Delta.
"This is a powerful new model for getting young people involved in the political process," says Prof. Henry Jenkins, who's written about the phenomenon he's dubbed "Avatar activism." (The term comes from YouTube videos of Palestinian demonstrators in the Occupied Territories dressed like Na'vi, the blue aliens of Avatar.)
"The newer activism may be informed by newer stories," Jenkins says. "Stories that matter deeply to the people who listen to them."
Stories like Avatar and the Harry Potter series might seem like unlikely starting points for civic engagement, but they speak a global language, and they stir something in people. Andrew Slack of the Harry Potter Alliance says fans are already oriented towards political empathy.
"When you hear about Darfur, you think,'That's a different world, I can't affect that world,'" he points out. But Harry Potter fans, he says, "have already gone to a different world and experienced the life of another character."
There's a playfulness and imagination to this brand of activism that can be lacking in more conventional political organizing. (It helps to have the wizard rockers of the band Harry and the Potters involved.) Kate Looby describes herself as "apathetic about things" before she learned about the Harry Potter Alliance. But joining the group got her convinced that she could make a difference. Now she's the HPA's director of operations.