HARRY POTTER AND THE WIZARDS OF FAN ACTIVISM
As we head towards the upcoming historic week of global climate action, people of all ages will be mobilizing to demand transformative action to be taken by our world’s governments to address the climate crisis. And we all know who has become the unlikely face of this movement; a 15 year old girl with the superpower of pure refusal; refusal to listen to non answers, excuses, far off predictions, and ignorant denials. From the days of Mario Savio and the student movements of the early 1960’s to the Parkland student’s incredible campaign against gun violence in schools, sometimes it’s the same naïveté and inexperience the establishment uses to try and marginalize these brave youths that is the very key to their success. Decade after decade, twitchy uncomfortable kids listening to the adults in the room arguing over incremental minutia that in their view, with their fresh eyes on society, won't make a difference beyond what feels to them as insignificant and useless political power struggles. For every new generation, they see everyone paving a road to nowhere while their futures get dimmer by the day. Luckily for us, they have their own ideas about the world and their teenage rebellion definitely has a cause.
As Matt Maggiacomo explores in his new piece, “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 naïve optimism, 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 churches, schools, 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 Brooklyn diner discussing the future of this fledgling social change model. At the table was Melissa Anelli, the fandom-famous host of PotterCast, a leading Harry Potter fan podcast, 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.
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 its ethos of fighting against bigotry, violence, and power, no matter what—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 music festival. READ MORE HERE
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 Katie Bowers, Managing Director of the HPA. “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. But “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.
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. READ MORE HERE
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.
"I Know, It's Only (Wizard) Rock and Roll, But I Like It"
Sometimes great music is born from movements against oppression, ignorance, and violence. Think Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Nina Simone, NWA, and Kendrick Lamar. Yet sometimes, movements are born from the music itself, expressions of the communities of artists and fans wanting to use their strength in numbers to take up social activism and put their passion to work for the good of society. In the case of The Harry Potter Alliance, that passion harnessed the power of wizard rock.
The most well-known of those bands would be Harry and the Potters. Formed in 2002, the band consists of two brothers, Paul and Joe DeGeorge, who wrote and performed songs from the perspective of the Harry Potter himself. “I thought it would be cool if Harry started his own scrappy punk rock band,” explained Paul DeGeorge to Rolling Stone.
He plays guitar as Harry Potter in his seventh year at Hogwarts and Joe plays keyboard and saxophone as Harry Potter in his fourth year. They sound a bit like They Might Be Giants sonically, but their lyrics are all humorous homages to the books plot lines. During live shows, they have different drummers they’ll play with — all also in character, like Bill Weasley, Ginny Weasley, or the ghost of Cedric Diggory.
And the origins of wizard rock seem to trace back to one specific place: New England. Harry and the Potters played Rhode Island house show in 2005 that seemed to change the game. The gig was hosted by Matt Maggiacomo himself, who would later create another wizard rock band called The Whomping Willows. Maggiacomo decided Harry and the Potters should have an opener, so (all in jest) he invited his friends Brian Ross and Bradley Mehlenbacher who played as “Draco and the Malfoys” to counter and rival the Potters with Harry Potter’s real rival Draco Malfoy. It was a hit. Soon after, Draco and the Malfoy went on tour with the Potters professionally.
And although many of the bands have since retired, the popularity and fandom of wizard rock continues. The music sticks to the good vs. evil themes of Harry Potter—a concept Harry and the Potters use in their live shows. At the beginning of each show, they ask the audience to raise their right hands and repeat a pledge:
“I pledge allegiance to this show —
to make this show the best show that I can possibly make.
On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to rock and roll.
I will sing and I will dance and I will yell until I lose my voice,
and then I will have to go out into the world and find it
and use it to make change in this world, for the good,
because I am a magical being with a magical voice.”
In a time when the world feels like it is in a turmoil spiral, these anthems, these songs, this community, is more needed than ever. Long live wizard rock.