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The Wizards of Fan Activism

Harry Potter and the Wizards of Fan Activism

by Matt Maggiacomo

Contemporary activist movements are a funny thing. With all the talk of dismantling isms and power structures, you’d think that most activist organizations and communities would strive to eliminate those structures within their own ranks. Yet, many aspiring change-makers are met with barriers to entry that mirror those found in more conventional and corporate spaces. Whether it’s due to lack of organizing experience, new or differing approaches to social change, or lack of access to power due to race, gender, or class, it is often young idealists who are kept on the sidelines in progressive and radical spaces—and often must break through walls on their own terms to achieve positions of leadership and influence. And on top of all that, young people are often derided by the progressive left for sitting out elections and squandering their political capital.

The cumulative message sent to young people by those in power is uniquely discouraging: if you aren’t playing by the established rules and serving the needs of the movement, you are not welcome, and you’ll be publicly shamed on top of it all. Yet this is not the stuff of truly successful movements and thankfully, as young people all over the world are standing up and taking action, there is a growing cohort of organizers who have diagnosed this movement-wide illness and they’re working hard to solve it. Their secret is so simple that it should go without saying: if you want to engage young people in your movement, you need to meet them where they’re at. After all, this emerging generation has a profound understanding of the aesthetics, the language, and the communication systems that allow ideas and actions to gain traction in a way that traditional organizations can’t crack. And they have the power to do it organically; a secret weapon more powerful than just the raw optimism and energy and enthusiasm youth movements have harnessed throughout history. Now we have the tools to unite the philosophies and value systems of subcultures far beyond college campuses and other traditional institutions that bring young people together in the first place.

Enter the wizards of fan activism. Back in 2007, a handful of Harry Potter fandom leaders sat in a diner in Brooklyn, discussing the future of a fledgling social change model: fan activism. At the table was Melissa Anelli, the fandom-famous host of PotterCast (a leading Harry Potter fan podcast) who was working on a chronicle of Harry Potter fan culture that would soon become a New York Times bestseller, Paul DeGeorge, one half of the pioneering wizard rock band Harry and the Potters (who’ve now performed close to 1,000 shows and have been covered glowingly by Rolling Stone and Pitchfork) and Andrew Slack, the visionary creator behind concepts like cultural acupuncture who was looking for help and guidance from established fandom leaders to expand his ideas into the stratosphere. It would be fun to imagine this meeting as a real-world convening of Dumbledore’s Army, complete with defensive spell casting trainings and assorted magical whimsy. But this was an ordinary muggle diner and the conversation was suitably mundane: how should this group of artists and weirdos formalize the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), which had existed as a social media phenomenon since 2005 but lacked the legitimacy of a registered nonprofit organization?

A few months later, the HPA’s founding Board of Directors was established, fundraising began in earnest, and the organization launched a chapters program that would eventually go global. In fact, over a decade later, the HPA maintains over 175 active chapters across six continents, with dozens of chapters running local activism campaigns at any given time. A few factors propelled this stunning growth: a genuine endorsement from author J.K. Rowling herself during the organization’s first major campaign, friendship with popular author/vloggers John and Hank Green and Harry Potter actors like Evanna Lynch, and a very successful public campaign to compel Warner Bros. to commit to fair trade cocoa sourcing for all Harry Potter chocolate products.

“I read about (the HPA) on Mugglenet and it answered a question I didn’t even know I was asking—how do I make the work I feel called to do feel like fun?” says Katie Bowers, Managing Director of the HPA. Prior to joining the HPA, Katie worked in education and student organizing with a number of different organizations. “One of my favorite jobs was working at a camp in Connecticut that brought together 4th, 5th, and 6th graders from across the state to learn about racial and economic justice. We spend the days talking about history, possible futures, and ways that kids can make a difference, and the evenings making s’mores and singing camp songs together! We worked with thousands of students each year having fun and talking about such important issues. It was a really special space.” She had also worked with high school students through organizations like Make the Road New York, Girls for Gender Equity, and Cornell Cooperative Extension, helping young people build their own campaigns around issues like reproductive justice, access to green space, health disparities, and many more. But her favorite part of youth organizing was “how scrappy and ambitious students are, and how easily they incorporate art, music, and performance into their ideas about how to change the world. Of course, right? Young people are steeped in culture and stories and music in a way that a lot of adults leave behind. It makes them natural cultural organizers.” And the idea of adding wizardry to her resume was enchanting to say the least. “It felt too joyful not to get involved. I was already trying to change the world. Why not do it with a bunch of fans who were as fun-loving, silly, and passionate as I was?”

Like most of the HPA’s current employees, Katie found the HPA through her enthusiastic involvement with fandom and started out with the organization in a volunteer capacity. Half a decade later, Katie is running the HPA. Katie’s experience exemplifies an essential truth about the HPA: nothing has contributed more to the organization’s success than its own ethos of meeting Harry Potter fans where they’re at. And if you had any exposure to Harry Potter fandom in the late aughts, you’d know that the community was extraordinarily well-connected and brimming with passion and energy. Furthermore, the community was already making connections between the left-leaning lessons of Harry Potter (dispelling stigmas around race and class) and the presence of widespread injustice in the real world. For instance, the fandom’s music scene, wizard rock, was rapidly expanding during the HPA’s infancy, and it seemed that every band had its own activist or philanthropic endeavor. Charitable wizard rock compilations were organized by several prominent bands, and many individual musicians paired their public persona with a cause—most commonly LGBTQ+ rights or advocacy for victims and survivors of the genocide in Darfur. 

The Harry Potter Alliance had very fertile ground on which to flourish. Rather than positioning itself as the fandom’s activist authority figure, the HPA approached fandom from a more inviting and inclusive angle: it welcomed everyone aboard, and through its new chapters program it gave young people the opportunity to run their own activism campaigns according to the needs of their unique local communities. “There is a built-in sense of community from day one,” says Bowers. “A brand new HPA chapter knows they have a lot to talk about, because they know that everyone there is excited to talk about their favorite stories, including Harry Potter and beyond. There’s a little less ice to break, right from go.”

The HPA also created national and global advocacy campaigns with actions that were easy to tap into; you could send a Howler to your local representatives, make a video on your own YouTube channel, or sign a Harry Potter-themed petition. Soon, making a difference for important causes had grown into yet another way for Harry Potter fans to express their love for their favorite books—and for many young people, taking action during an HPA campaign was much easier than finding the funds to attend an expensive fan conference or wizard rock festival.

To be clear, activism shouldn’t always be easy or cater to an activist’s personal comfort. However, for bookish young people with a tendency toward social anxiety and little practical organizing experience, the relatively light lifts prompted by the HPA have felt like little magic spells themselves. "There will always be another threat, another campaign, another push, another call to stop being tired and do something more,” says Bowers. “If that work is fun, if it’s done with a community of excited and supportive people, if that work can happen wherever you are–be it a theater or a lawmaker’s office or a friend’s house or your Tumblr–then we stand a better chance of being able to fight and fight again, and keep fighting. The world needs heroes and activists with the thoughtfulness, love, and undying passion of fans, especially when days are dark.”

But interestingly enough, fan activism has not been fully supported by the progressive establishment. Elana Levin is a comics podcaster and critic who’s been operating in fandom spaces for decades. She’s also a Program Director at New Media Mentors and the Director of Trainings at Netroots Nation, an annual gathering of progressive organizers. Her approach to fan activism is fairly practical: “We saw with Wonder Woman that left to their own devices, fans are going to come up with really cool fundraisers, buy out all the seats in the theater and raise a bunch of money for charities,” says Levin. “If fans don’t have relationships with grassroots community organizations, then they’re basically going to be focusing on doing this with the same big NGOs who might not need their help.”

Fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series illustrate her point: Since 2006, a fan activist group called Can’t Stop the Serenity has been organizing charitable screenings of Serenity, a film that accompanied the short-lived but bonafide cult-classic television series. All told, these events have raised over $1 million for Equality Now, an accomplished and well-funded organization with over $12 million in annual revenue—and nearly $12.5 million in net assets as of 2017. 

While Levin views this type of fan-led philanthropy with admiration, her vision is to channel these great intentions into support for, and collaboration with, smaller grassroots organizations that are firmly rooted in the communities they serve. She took a big step forward with her mission when she organized Black Panther FanActivistCon, in partnership with the Center for Story-Based Strategy, the Harry Potter Alliance, Intelligent Mischief, and Black Girls Create. The online conference featured a full day of workshops and programs designed to build stronger connections between enthusiastic Black Panther fans and compatible nonprofit organizations that could benefit from their energy and investment.

“The goal was to connect fan communities who love Black Panther with racial justice organizations and environmental justice organizations who were doing some of the most important work, and who fans weren’t necessarily aware of,” says Levin. “I want to get people together. I want to teach fans about these grassroots organizations and I want to teach the organizations about what fandom is.” The primary challenge, according to Levin, is that institutional funders don’t often see the value in investing in projects that grow out of fandom spaces. “I think people misidentify fan communities as being white and middle class, and a lot of them are, but it is not exclusively true,” says Levin. “I think there’s a lot of resistance to organizing resources into people who they see as having access to privilege.”

Indeed, the Harry Potter Alliance has struggled with this perception, resulting in a unique scenario in which the nonprofit is almost entirely funded by small donations and merchandise sales from crowdfunding campaigns. Institutional funding has been a lot harder to come by. The irony is that the HPA’s global membership is nearly 50% LGBTQ+ and over 85% women, and its programs provide important leadership opportunities for folks who are often shut out of positions of power and influence. Evidently, those important facts are often outshone by preconceived notions of who fandom participants are. Levin sees plenty of value in funding fan activist projects, even if they are run by predominantly white and middle class groups.“If you don’t mobilize these white middle class people then you’re going to leave them to Trump,” says Levin.

But does fan activism work? Whether they’re raising money for juggernauts like Equality Now or organizing book drives for local women’s shelters, fan activists have made an indelible impact on a variety of critical social and political issues. The HPA’s track record alone is staggering. Organizations like the Center for Story-Based Strategy take a more general approach to the power of storytelling in social change movements, but their investment in events like FanActivistCon help to validate fan-led organizing. Still, fan activism has plenty of vocal detractors. For every fan activism success story, there is a think piece that condescendingly instructs Harry Potter fans to read another book. “Some people don’t take it seriously, because they don’t get it, and that’s fine,” says Bowers. “Our successes–winning ballot initiatives, making all Harry Potter-brand chocolate fair trade, training thousands of activists around the world–really show that fan activism matters and works.”

Fan activism has also received some criticism from marginalized groups, who haven’t always felt comfortable with fictional stories being used as a framework to explore problems that are very real and often life-threatening. In fact, the HPA received some backlash on Tumblr in 2014, during the second installment of its Hunger Games-themed campaign, Odds in Our Favor. The offending post was an image that drew a direct connection between the fictional oppression faced by the people of Panem’s districts and the real oppression faced by black people in the United States. For some folks, the comparison was hard to swallow in the wake of the racially motivated murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and others.

To the HPA’s credit, they’ve learned from a few missteps and have prioritized centering and working with the marginalized groups they often advocate for. Bowers sums up the HPA’s refined approach well: “As long as you are working with and following the lead of the most impacted communities, and they are excited about the work you’re doing, I think fan activism can serve any issue.” Stories provide a shared experience and passion from which an energetic movement can grow, but so does human experience—we’ve all been first-time advocates, full of righteous intent but short on practical experience. Fan activist organizations like the HPA have found success in welcoming new activists to the table, giving them leadership opportunities right off the bat, and providing steadfast support and guidance. Most importantly, fan activist leaders have eschewed the tisking, scolding attitude of the traditional left and met young activists exactly where they’re at: with their nose in a book, imagining how they can embody the ideals of their heroes in the real world. The result is a magical force that would make Albus Dumbledore proud. Counter culture youth movements have been written off time and time again. But as their real societal impact comes into focus, it’s clear that institutional underestimation (both progressive and conservative) is in fact their true magical power.


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