Last weekend, Cynthia and I drove up to San Francisco where I spoke about “Learning From and About Fandom” at Azkatraz, a Harry Potter fan convention. The key note speaker at this year’s event was Andrew Slack of the HP Alliance. Slack is a thoughtful young activist whose work is exploring the intersection between politics and popular culture. He’s really helped to inspired some of the research I am going to be doing in the coming year about “fan activism” and how we can build a bridge between participatory culture and democratic participation. I interviewed Slack for Journal of Media Literacy earlier this year and I thought this would be a good opportunity to share that interview with my blog readers.
Slack’s work is gaining greater visibility at the moment because of the release of the new film, including a recent profile in Newsweek magazine (warning — the piece is typically patronizing and ill-informed about things fannish but that it exists at all speaks to the impact this group is starting to have in terms of rallying young people to support political change). At the con, Slack spoke about his “What Would Dumbledore Do” campaign, an effort to help map what the “Dumbledore Doctrine” might mean for our contemporary society. You can read more about it here.
The HP Alliance has adopted an unconventional approach to civic engagement — mobilizing J.K. Rowling’s best-selling Harry Potter fantasy novels as a platform for political transformation, linking together traditional activist groups with new style social networks and with fan communities. Its youthful founder, Andrew Slack, wants to create a “Dumbledore’s Army” for the real world, adopting fantastical and playful metaphors rather than the language of insider politics, to capture the imagination and change the minds of young Americans. In the process, he is creating a new kind of media literacy education — one which teaches us to reread and rewrite the contents of popular culture to reverse engineer our society. One can’t argue with the success of this group which has deployed podcasts and Facebook to capture the attention of more than 100,000 people, mobilizing them to contribute to the struggles against genocide in Darfur or the battles for worker’s rights at Wall-Mart or the campaign against Proposition 8 in California.
The Harry Potter novels taught a generation to read and to write (through fan fiction); Harry Potter now may be teaching that same generation how to change their society. The Harry Potter novels depicted its youth protagonists questioning adult authority, fighting evil, and standing up for their rights. It offers inspirational messages about empowerment and transformation which can fuel meaningful civic action in our own world. For example, in July 2007, the group worked with the Leaky Cauldron, one of the most popular Harry Potter news sites, to organize house parties around the country focused on increasing awareness of the Sudanese genocide. Participants listened to and discussed a podcast which featured real-world political experts — such as Joe Wilson, former U.S. ambassador; John Prendergast, senior advisor to the International Crisis Group; and Dot Maver, executive director of the Peace Alliance — alongside performances by Wizard Rock groups such as Harry and the Potters, The Whomping Willows, Draco and the Malfoys, and the Parselmouths. The HP Alliance has created a new form of civic engagement which allows participants to reconcile their activist identities with the pleasurable fantasies that brought the fan community together in the first place.
In this interview, Slack spells out what he calls the “Dumbledore Doctrine,” explores how J.K. Rowling infused the fantasy novels with what she had learned as an activist for Amnesty International, and describes how the books have become the springboard for his own campaign for social change. Along the way, he offers insights which may be helpful to other groups who want to build a bridge from participatory culture to participatory culture.
Why don’t we begin with the big picture? Can you just describe what the HP Alliance is, and what it’s core goals are?
The Harry Potter Alliance, or the HP Alliance is an organization that uses online organizing to educate and mobilize Harry Potter fans toward being engaged in issues around self empowerment as well as social justice by using parallels from the books. With the help of a whole network of fan sites and Harry Potter themed bands, we reach about 100,000 people across the world.
The main parallel we draw on comes from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Harry starts an underground activist group called “Dumbledore’s Army” to wake the Ministry of Magic up to the fact that Voldemort has returned. The HP Alliance strives to be a Dumbledore’s Army for the real world that is trying to wake the world up to ending the genocide in Darfur.
Recently we have expanded our scope, discussing human rights atrocities in Eastern Burma, and we’re going to be incorporating Congo into our vision soon. I’ll talk more on exactly what we have done regarding these issues in a moment, but the parallels don’t stop with this notion of Dumbledore’s Army waking the world up to injustice. The Harry Potter books hit on issues of racism toward people who are not so called “pure blooded” Wizards just as our world continues to not treat people equally based on race. House elves are exploited the way that many employers treat their workers in both sweat shops in developing nations and even in superstores like Wal-Mart. Indigenous groups like the Centaurs are not treated equally just as Indigenous groups in our world are not treated equally. And just as many in our world feel the need to hide in the closet due to their sexual orientation, a character like Remus Lupin hides in the closet because of his identity as a werewolf, Rubeus Hagrid hides in the closet because of his identity as a half-giant, and Harry Potter is literally forced to live inside a closet because of his identity as a Wizard. With each of these parallels, we talk to young people about ways that we can all be like Harry, Hermione, Ron and the other members of Dumbledore’s Army and work for justice, equality, and for environments where love and understanding are revered.
The average person we reach is somewhere between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five, very passionate, enthusiastic, and idealistic – but often have very few activist outlets that speak to them. And this is no coincidence. Unfortunately, so much of our culture directed at young people is about asking them to consume. It’s looking at them as dollar signs, as targets for advertising. But Harry Potter is a great example of a book that hasn’t done that. Of course there’s merchandising and all that kind of thing, but fundamentally the message of the book is so empowering for young people.
Young people are depicted in the books as often smarter, more aware of what’s happening in the world, than their elders, though there are also some great examples where very wise adults have mentored and supported young people as they have taken action in the world. These books represent a very empowering tool for young people, and young people have taken it into their hands – and created Websites and fan fiction, and a whole genre of music called “wizard rock” around Harry Potter. And it’s been extraordinary. So we are utilizing all of that energy and momentum to make a difference in the world for social activism. We are essentially asking young people the same question that Harry poses to his fellow members of Dumbledore’s Army in the fifth movie, “Every great Wizard in history has started off as nothing more than we are now. If they can do it, why not us?” This is a question that we not only pose to our members, we show them how right now they can start working to be those “great Wizards” that can make a real difference in this world. Whose imprint can have a value that is loving, meaningful, and nothing short of heroic. And the enthusiasm we’ve seen from young people is just astounding.
By translating some of the world’s most pressing issues into the framework of Harry Potter, it makes activism something easier to grasp and less intimidating. Often we show them fun and accessible ways that they can take action and express their passion to make the world better by working with one of our partner NGO’s. Not to mention, our chapter members and participants on our forum section come up with their own ideas which they collaborate on together – so while we often make decisions from the top-down, we also are building a way for each member to direct the destiny of what they and the larger organization are working on.
J.K. Rowling used to work with Amnesty International. How do you think that background impacted the books?
Well there’s definite parallels between Amnesty’s themes and the themes in Harry Potter. One of the main human rights issues that Amnesty works on is for the release of political prisoners.
Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, was a political prisoner. His best friend James Potter and James’ wife Lily were murdered and his godson Harry was orphaned. But on top of that trauma, he was accused of committing the murders. Now if he had had a trial, he could have made a case for why he was innocent and how the real killer was still on the loose. But that couldn’t happen because the Ministry of Magic had suspended habeas corpus. This all happened at a time of great terror and in times of great terror, governments often lock people away without a fair trial. We need not look very far for that. It’s happening right now in our own country. And not only are these prisoners, many of them innocent like Sirius, not only are they locked up without trial, they are subsequently tortured–another issue which Amnesty works hard to stop.
In Harry Potter, the Wizarding prison known as Azkaban is guarded by Dementors. Dementors suck all the happiness from you, and live you in a state of tortured non-stop panic attack/depression. They literally feed off of the unhappiness in your soul until they suck your soul dry. This is the essence of torture and this is what’s been getting done to people in Guantanomo Bay and Abu Ghraib and Eastern European prisons that the CIA helped build. People are locked away without a fair trial and then tortured. This is all done under the rationalization that in times of terror, justice must be suspended in the name of freedom. But then the very freedom we profess to stand for gets suspended as well in the name of preying on people’s greatest fears rather than praying for our better angels. And this hurts the cause. A society that becomes a tyranny in order to fight for its freedom has destroyed the very purpose for which it is fighting. And in doing so, such a society gives strength to it’s opponent. We need not go very far in our research to understand that the torture that our country has committed in Abu Ghraib and Guantaomo Bay has not only been immoral, it has been dreadful on a public relations front. Images of tortured Muslims has become one of al Qaeda’s most effective recruiting methods.
And this aspect of a government shooting itself in the foot while selling out it’s ideals happens in Harry Potter too. After Dumbledore’s Army forces the Ministry of Magic to acknowledge Voldemort’s return, the Ministry returns to the days when people are no longer given trials. And in order to look like they are making some headway, they arrest someone innocent named Stan Shunpike. They know the guy is innocent. They arrest him anyway, and he ends up being released by the Death Eaters, and put under the Imperius Curse, thereby becoming one of the Death Eaters.
So these Amnesty themes of political prisoners getting the right to a fair trial and the end of torture are consistent with the Harry Potter books and the values of Amnesty International.
But JK Rowling in her personal work outside of the books, takes that a step further. This can be seen in her charitable work and advocacy on many fronts, including helping children who are caged in Eastern Europe. Besides this incredible work, there’s the words that she speaks outside of the confines of the books and these words help articulate the messages of Harry Potter.
Her commencement speech at Harvard in the spring of 2008 was unbelievable. One of the main themes of the speech was around the power of imagination and how we must “imagine better.” She said, this doesn’t necessarily mean imagining a magical world like she has done, but about building the capacity to imagine oneself in other person’s shoes, and in that speech she talks about her experience at Amnesty International as being formative for her imagination. She got to work with people that were so passionate about imagining themselves in other peoples’ shoes. And she became one of those people – imagining herself in the shoes of political prisoners, in the shoes of people that have fought for democracy under tyranny. There’s a horrific story she tells where she is helping somebody who had been in prison, and as she was guiding this person to the airport, she heard a blood curdling scream. She said she had never heard a scream like this in her life, and it was from a political refugee that had just been informed that because of his dissident activities in his own country, his mother had just been killed. She said it was a scream that will always stay with her. And in talking to the students at Harvard, she was really very, very adamant that those in the United States, which is for now the only world super power, those of us who have the privilege of education also have both an opportunity and a responsibility to to imagine better, and imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes. Let me read her quote directly. She says, “If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
What can you tell us about your own relationship to these books? How was the idea of the HP Alliance born?
I already had a very strong interest in the power of a story to grab people and to get them more engaged in living a healthier life and in contributing more in a way that is civically engaged and civic minded. As a college student at Brandeis University I got to explore my feelings around this while at a center for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, while interviewing Civil Rights activists in person throughout the US, and while studying at an acting conservatory in London. It was when I graduated from college, however, that I found Harry Potter. I had heard of the books but had little interest in them.
Upon graduating, I was teaching at a creative theater camp, and I was amazed at the way these children discussed and debated Harry Potter – with so much passion. It was insane. I was intimidated to start reading the books; there was just so many of them. There were four released at the time. The teachers were enthralled by them, and urged me to read them.
I was still resistant. And then I started working in the Boys & Girls Club in Cambridge, and I was working with a completely different socio-economic group of kids – racially and ethnically diverse – yet they, too, were lovers of Harry Potter. One of my colleagues at the Boys & Girls Club of a different race and ethnic and socio-economic background from me was obsessed with the books. She would read them constantly and I couldn’t understand how it could be so great – and finally I asked her to hand me the first book, and she did – and I read that first chapter, and I just started laughing so hard.
The first sentence – ” Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. ” I was surprised. This is a subversive book that right away begins to indict what I eventually started to call a Muggle Minded attitude — being obsessed with “normalcy,” not being interested in imagination, not being able to see outside of one’s self. So I was swept away, right away, and by the end of that first chapter, I turned to this young woman who handed me the book and I said, ‘I think this book just changed my life.’ I raced through those first four books. Read them again and again, and I began making personal connections with them for myself. I think when you read a book about a hero, often times you become the hero, and for me, I would see myself as Harry in specific situations – and issues that I have dealt with in my life around anxiety – fighting Dementors became similar to that. There’s a lot of loved ones I have that suffer from addiction, and their struggle with addiction seemed to mirror some characters’ struggle to get out of the hold that Voldemort has on them when they follow him as Death Eaters. There’s a very addictive quality, and watching what happened to one of the characters and his family around being a Death Eater is interesting because you see the tragedy of what happens to anyone who has a family member that is an addict, as so many young people do. In the case of Voldemort’s followers, it’s a cult, but it’s still got this very addictive element to it, and I’m sure if you go into areas where there’s terrorism in the world, a lot of families – like the ones I met and worked with in North Ireland — experienced that addictive quality. It might not be drug addiction, but having a family member who is in a paramilitary group is a very, very difficult thing to cope with. Even families that sided with them intellectually couldn’t deal with the idea of them being imprisoned and all of the horrible things they were doing.
So these books were speaking to such a broad range of very human experiences – including the wish to live a normal life despite adversity. The wish to, in Harry’s case, play Quidditch and Exploding Snap and to have a crush on a girl like Cho Chang or Ginny Weasley. And all the while having to contend with darker forces in the world that he is internally connected to. Well I was just swept away by all of this. And the feeling of the story: Harry Potter brought me to this child-like state where everything was fun. I mean the books are so fun. What’s different about these books than a lot of other fantasy books is how hilarious they are. They’re just full of jokes that go into the day to day existence of characters, and then all of a sudden we’re back into that fantasy realm of suspense that you see in books like the wonderful series His Dark Materials, more commonly known as The Golden Compass books. Harry Potter has all of that but it has humor to it, and so it really–I spent years as a comedian and I really connected to her sense of humor. I really connected to her sense of fantasy and imagination – how utterly playful the books are. So I was connecting to them from the point of view of how well written they were, how fun they were, and how much they spoke to me on a personal level in my own life, but then at the end of the fourth book, I was just amazed at what Dumbledore says to Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic at the time. He says, in the wake of Voldemort’s return, we’ve got to get rid of dementors, form alliances with those in foreign lands, and end our attitudes of racism. He then gets up in front of the whole school and says that we must be able to say what we’re scared of, which I think is essential for young people to do, and to vocalize their fears and to name their fears. And we must understand that Voldemort’s greatest gift is spreading discord and enmity, and that’s what we see in our world.
With terrorism, it’s not just about killing and the number of people they kill. It’s also about the fear that they inflict in those who survive. And that’s the same as Voldemort, and Dumbledore says, we can only combat this discord and enmity with an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. And this is what I call this Dumbledore Doctrine – that as the band “Harry and the Potters” say, “the greatest weapon we have is love.” That this can actually translate into policy that is really important. And I began thinking, wow, the world needs Dumbledore. The world needs a Dumbledore, and then when I read that fifth book, where Harry starts an activist group named after Dumbledore – Dumbledore’s Army – I thought, the world needs a Dumbledore’s Army, and I began imagining myself going into the Room of Requirement and meeting with young people as if we were part of Dumbledore’s Army – and each of us could be like Harry Potter – could see ourselves in the hero role, not where we’re the chosen one to bring down all evil or anything like that, but where each of us plays a valuable part in changing this world, where we are the shapers rather than the spectators of history. I think it’s amazing how we in this country with all of our resources have an opportunity to connect with people in our communities as well as people all over the world. And to do so in our relationships but also through volunteering in our communities and service as well as through civic engagement in the political process. That doesn’t mean to engage in a partisan fashion, although people can feel free to do that, but the Harry Potter Alliance doesn’t advocate for anything in a partisan way. However, we do want people to both volunteer with people at a local AIDS clinic as well as advocate for better treatment of AIDS victims in Africa. We want our young people tutoring underprivileged kids and helping them read, getting them engaged in the Internet and learning those things, but then also challenging the rules of the game that are making it possible for kids to go without food. And to challenge our politicians on both sides of the aisle that need to do something about that.
I think a key part of Harry Potter’s popularity is that it is an example of a myth that the world is so hungry for, not just that they are funny books or that they’re entertainment or that they’re suspenseful or that they help us escape. They do all those things, but these books open our minds and our hearts to benefiting humanity in a way that I think secretly we all know unconsciously needs to happen. And that there’s something truly profound about the love that Dumbledore speaks about and the love that Harry has for his friends that ends up being the thing that defeats Voldemort. And we need that love now. Not in any flaky sense of the word, but in a way that comes from deep within us and that we can share from our hearts.