So you’re using a language of play, of fantasy, of humor to talk about political change? Much of the time, political leaders deploy a much more serious minded, policy-wonky language. What do you think are the implications of changing the myths and metaphors we use to talk about political change?
I think it’s so freaking important to break things down for people in a way that they can understand. We get into this wonky-talk. There are so many organizations doing amazing things, and they mobilize their membership really well – but it doesn’t connect to young people. Young people, by and large, care about issues like genocide. They care about issues like poverty, discrimination, environment. They want to be engaged in these things, but the people who are going to be inviting them to engage, have to be thinking about “how do I authentically talk from my heart to this young person in a way that’s authentic to their experience and to our shared experience?” One of the reasons why I was successful in beginning the Harry Potter Alliance is because I’m such a hardcore Harry Potter fan. Had I not been such a passionate Harry Potter fan, had I not been caring about this myth so much myself, I wouldn’t have been able to translate the message as well.
And so it’s important, I think, when talking with people to find out what you have in common, what you’re both passionate about, and then to translate that into the real world in a way that makes sense. Activism should be fun. Activism is fun, but of course, the issues can get so heavy. We can get paralyzed by a sense of guilt of not wanting to even look at the problems because they seem so big. And if I look at them, we often ask, “how can I go on with my life?” This is similar in Harry Potter to people saying, ‘ I can’t say Voldemort’s name. I’m too scared to even say his name, so I say, you-know-who.’ In our world we think, “I can’t say AIDS. I can’t say poverty. I can’t say genocide because if I open my eyes, I’ll never be able to look away, and it will ruin my life.” And that’s not a helpful attitude for anybody. We have to learn how to say the name Voldemort in stride, and how to say these words – genocide, etc. – in stride, and not get caught in this idea that we have to fix it all. We can be part of a larger community playing our part. And that experience can be empowering and fun.
We had a meeting a couple days ago – a conference call. It was for something called Stand Fast. We’re working with this amazing organization called STAND, which refers to itself as the student arm of the anti-genocide movement, and they are building a constituency across the world of students who are standing up against genocide in Darfur and now against ethnic cleansing in Eastern Burma. They are funding a civilian protection program in Darfur, where $3.00 protects one woman from being raped for a whole week, and $5.00 protects a whole family in Eastern Burma by providing them with radios. And this is such an empowering concept because you can say to a young person, ‘instead of going to a Starbucks and getting a latte, instead of going to a movie, on this particular date, we’re going together not go to a movie or give up some sort of luxury item, and $10.00 will fund the protection of one woman in Darfur for a week and a whole family in Eastern Burma – just $10.’ A young person can understand that, can grasp that, and can also understand that this is not just about charity – it’s not just about your money. It’s a political statement when 15 year olds are protecting the lives of people in Darfur and Eastern Burma because their governments have been unable to do it regardless of how many resources they have. That is a political statement, and so we talk about that. But here’s how we did it – we got the leaders of the Harry Potter fan community, the biggest names in the Harry Potter fan community of the Websites that – the Leaky Cauldron, Mugglenet, the biggest wizard rock bands – we got them all together to make an announcement that we are going to have a live conference call where you can all come. We had over 200 people come on the conference call under short notice to talk about this one day where we’d all be donating, December 3rd, it just happened. And people can still do this at theHPAlliance.org/civilianprotection. But, and here’s where part of the fantasy comes in: we didn’t just call it a conference call. We called it a meeting of Dumbledore’s Army. We’re going to have a Dumbledore’s Army meeting – that we’re going into a Room of Requirement, where you’re given a code to get in. You press pound, and you’re in the room of requirement. We talk about, we’re in the Room of Requirement now, and just like Harry got up and taught people how to do this, we’re going to talk to you about the issues. And everybody was briefed, all the speakers on what to say, and how to talk about this issue – but they did it from their own place and what they’re passionate about. And it was just incredible. The response we’ve had from the people on the call was unbelievable. People giving up smoking. People giving up coffee. People saying, “I’m taking half the money I would have spent on Christmas, and giving it to this. And I’m going to tell all my family that the reason I’m not giving them as much this year is because I gave it to people who need it in Darfur and Burma, and I’m sure they’ll be proud of me. And I feel so proud of myself right now.”
It was an amazing experience, but it was done through fantasy. We didn’t just say we’re like Harry. We actually pretended that we are in a Room of Requirement. We are Dumbledore’s Army, and we’re doing it. And it was really empowering last year when J. K. Rowling said that this is truly an organization that is fighting for the same kinds of values that Dumbledore’s Army fought for in the books, and to everyone involved in this organization, the world needs more people like you. And it was a real boost for our morale, and it was an incredible thing to get a message like that from one of our favorite authors.
You’ve already started down this path – so why don’t you say a little more about how the fan community provides part of the infrastructure for something like the HP Alliance?
Yeah, it couldn’t happen without the fan community. When we started, I was blogging about these ideas – about the parallels between discrimination in Harry Potter and discrimination based on race or sexuality in our world. Or about political prisoners in Harry Potter and political prisoners in our world. About ignoring Voldemort’s return, and ignoring the genocide in Darfur in our world. So I was blogging about this, but no one was reading my blog. You know that wasn’t really taking off too fast. Then I met Paul and Joe deGeorge of the wizard rock band Harry and the Potters. These are two guys that started a band where they sang from the perspective of Harry Potter. They still do. They loved the idea of a Dumbledore’s Army for the real world, and soon enough we began brainstorming ideas – and I took my blogs, where I provided action alerts for how people can be like Harry and the members of Dumbledore’s Army, and they reposted it on their Myspace page. Their Myspace at the time was going out to about 40 or 50,000 profiles. Now it’s going out to about 90,000 Myspace profiles. Soon other musicians began to form bands that were wizard rock – bands based off of other characters in the book. Draco and the Malfoys were the bad guy band. The Whomping Willows based off of a tree at Hogwart’s . The Moaning Myrtles – there’s so many of these bands, and they all began to repost together, collectively, the messages that I was writing. Soon, through these wizard rock bands, we were communicating with over 100,000 Myspace profiles, and then the biggest Harry Potter fan sites wanted to be a part of it as well because this is a community that is just so incredibly enthusiastic, idealistic – believes in the values that are in Harry Potter about love and social change and the values in Amnesty, and they began to post what we were doing.
And they put up our first podcast right before Deathly Hallows, the last book, came out. Thanks to their putting it on their podcast feed at the time, at the peak of Harry Potter‘s popularity – that podcast was downloaded over 110,000 times, and STAND, one of our partner organizations, saw a huge spike in involvement that month thanks to our efforts. They saw a 40% increase in high school chapter sign ups compared to a normal two week period in July, and over a 50% increase in calls to their hotline – 1-800-GENOCIDE in a two week period compared to a regular two week period in July. This year the wizard rock bands and Mugglenet posted this special project that we were doing with a group in the UK, called Aegis Trust. Aegis Trust works on all sorts of genocide remembrance issues around the Holocaust, around Rwanda, but they had a special project where they were sending letters to the United Nations, asking the Security Council to do something about war criminals that were being given protection, impunity in Sudan, and they ended up sending 10,000 letters to the UN Security Council. Of those 10,000 letters, over three-quarters of them came from the Harry Potter Alliance. We weren’t members of government. They were getting a lot of members of governments to write. We got young people. We brought Dumbledore’s Army. The Harry Potter Alliance – we have about 3500 people on our e-mail list. We have about 50 chapters. We have about 12,000 Myspace members – about 1500 Facebook members, but we could not have done that without this larger network of wizard rock bands sending it out and of fan sites posting – here’s what Dumbledore’s Army is doing now. Here’s what Harry Potter Alliance are doing now. We’re all part of this alliance. Let’s all step up to the plate, and even though we reach sometimes about 100,000 people, getting about 8,000 signatures, that’s almost 1 in 10 of who we’re reaching, and that’s a lot as far as action goes because different people are engaged in different ways through our organization.
So that’s just one example. In the last year, we’ve raised well over $15,000 from small donations to fund the protection of thousands of women in Darfur and villagers in Eastern Burma.
In the process we educate young people through podcast interviews with survivors of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, with policy experts, as well as with partnerships with groups like the Genocide Intervention Network and it’s student arm STAND, the ENOUGH Project, Amnesty International, Aegis Trust and several other human rights organizations.
And now we are building these chapters and we want them to exist in schools and after school programs. And we want to help shape curriculum on how Social Studies and English are taught, if schools would be open to it.
At the same time, you’ve been able to build an alliance with some very traditional political organizations and governmental leaders. Could you say a little bit of how they’ve responded to the Harry Potter Alliance approach?
When I first started calling traditional organizations letting them know that I wanted to help them, I was very afraid that they were going to hang up when I told them the name of the organization is the Harry Potter Alliance. And if I said, HP Alliance, they would think it was The Hewlett Packard Alliance. In fact, one of our board members has been getting mail to the Hewlett Packard Alliance. We’ve never referred to ourselves as the Hewlett Packard Alliance, but people see HP, and they think Hewlett Packard. (laughter) And that’s an alliance I don’t want to be part of. So (laughter) when I tell the organizations at first who we are, there’s this initial insecurity that I have on how they’re going to react, and at first that insecurity proved to be warranted because they didn’t know what to do with a group that is named after a fictitious book for young adults and plus, we had no track record. Though despite some challenges here and there, I must say that I was actually impressed with how open minded some people were. I think the best example of this is the Co-Founder of the ENOUGH Project John Prendergast. John is a policy expert on issues of international crisis and truly is a celebrated activist. But John actively looks for outside of the box ideas. When I met him in 2005 and told him about our new organization, my heart was pounding with nerves and he looked at me very intensely and basically said, “Dude. Comic books turned me into an activist. The least I can do is mention this in the book I’m writing with Cheadle.” And that’s Don Cheadle who starred in Hotel Rwanda. And this was crazy to me. And we are in that book, which was a New York Times best seller. It’s called Not On Our Watch: the Mission To End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond and it’s an excellent book.
But now when I call up organizations to form coalitions and partnerships I can tell them that we can get you thousands of people to see what they’re doing. This strategy is very important to us: connecting Harry Potter fans to NGO’s that are doing impressive work. We see they need more people, and we provide them with the people. We tell them, ‘look, you know Harry Potter, and you know there’s a lot of enthusiasm here. We can channel some of that enthusiasm to this noble work that you’re doing by just using examples from the books and this incredible community of people, and we’ve been in Time magazine – and we’ve been in The Los Angeles Times.’ So you know that sort of helps them take us more seriously now. Now, they want the Harry Potter Alliance to be involved, and then sometimes I’m thinking, I have to kind of pinch myself that now they’re coming to us – and there’s been a couple examples of them paying us as consultants to help them with recruiting young people to become part of their movement. The best example of that has been with our efforts to get young people educated on the issue of media reform.
We’ve worked with an organization called Free Press which can be found at freepress.net – Free Press leads a group called the Stop Big Media coalition. And we have a whole campaign where we compare things in Harry Potter that involve media consolidation to media consolidation in our world. Most people don’t know much about media consolidation, but when you begin looking at how minorities are not represented fairly in the media, ethnic and racial minorities make up about a third of the US population, and they own I believe less than 3% of commercial TV. Women and minorities make up about 66% of this country, and yet are on television news about 12% of the time. What we see on TV, what we are shown visually, what is defined as “normal” in our culture are white men. The problem here is that the Federal Communications Commission has stacked the deck in the favor a handful of conglomerates to own most media in any given city. And this wipes out independent local media. And we want the FCC to change that, because it affect our outlook on race, it affects our outlook on our own communities, it even affects how foreign news like the genocide in Darfur is covered. The big conglomerates have cut foreign news by around 80% since the 1980’s and replaced that with celebrity gossip -which would explain why Brittney Spears is covered more than a genocide that would be stopped if the political will was there.
This issue has gotten our membership really fired up, and we say what media reform activists always say: “whatever your number one issue is, media reform should be your number two issue because your issue can’t be communicated if the media is not free.” It’s been really exciting – but yeah, so these traditional organizations, whether it’s the Save Darfur coalition and the ENOUGH Project, STAND and the Genocide Intervention Network and Aegis Trust, all issues – all organizations that work on genocide related things – or Free Press or the No on Proposition 8 campaign, which we worked on. We recently did something called Wizard Rock the Vote, where we registered close to 900 people. I think they were almost all new voters at wizard rock concerts across the country and online, and that was in partnership with the organization Rock the Vote. They loved us, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun for them, too, because these organizations have staff members that are Harry Potter fans. And I personally have put out a couple of videos satirizing Wal-Mart, and because of this fan base, we were able to get two of the videos over 2 million views on YouTube. It just sped out of control, and I mean it’s incredible. I call it cultural acupuncture, when you can take something where there’s a lot of energy, and then translate it to something else. A lot psychic energy you – psychological energy being placed on something, and you move to make it healthier. It’s a remarkable thing to see what we can do, and for teachers and youth workers, I think it’s really important to think about what are your students interested in?
I think one of the biggest problems with our education system – I mean I can’t stand No Child Left Behind, not just because it hasn’t gotten proper funding, but because I wasn’t very good at standardized tests in school – and I think they are generally about regurgitating information. I call it, Leave No Imagination Recognized. When engaging young people to become civically minded, find out what they care about. If you’re working at an after-school program with inner-city youth, find something that’s going to speak to inner-city youth. Are they interested in a specific kind of music? A lot of the kids that I’ve worked with from inner-city environments have been interested in hip-hop, so can you find yourself a teacher who knows about hip-hop, and gets the people to be part of a contest that’s hip-hop oriented – but that involves research to say that the greatest hip-hop music out there, not the kind you hear in clubs per se, but the greatest hip-hop artists have reflected what’s been going on in their communities and how things can change. That’s the real hip-hop, and to you really work on that – and do some sort of hip-hop activism through organizations like the League of Young Voters, who often times refer to themselves as the League of Pissed Off Voters – that gets young people engaged. Show them episodes of The Wire, the HBO series, and then talk about the issues of crime, poverty, and drugs that are depicted in that series. And then right after that discussion, begin working on a project together. My idea for The Wire is show one episode that’s an hour, then the next hour, discuss the issues that are in that episode, and how that reflects your own personal life – and in a third hour, start a project that addresses those issues.
So it should start with a piece of art that provokes the discussion, then have the discussion, and then after the discussion, don’t leave it there, turn it into action. And that’s one way to engage a specific population of young people, but that same method can be replicated for any group of young people, especially if you have access to video equipment. If you had access to video equipment, if the kids know how to write, you can show them how they can produce videos that will be seen by a lot of people, and how there’s more to their world than just where they are – that they really now more than ever – we don’t need to be paying lip service to young people that they can change the world. They can do it today, they can do it right now. If they care about something, they can do it, and they will be better at coming up with a video than the teachers. Find writing teachers. Find acting teachers to help them refine their jokes – make their videos funny or emotionally powerful. Have them interview people in their communities on what they care about. Get that stuff up on YouTube – where ever a young person’s voice can be heard by the world. Tom Friedman has a great quote that the only competition that now exists is the one between us and our own imaginations. And now it’s purely a matter of getting young people the access to these resources to do it, and then getting them to learn how to most effectively make those ideas and things viral. All you got to do is get them to care about something, and then they’ll take care of it from there.
We’ve talked about a number of new media platforms in all of this– blogs, podcasts, social network sites, YouTube. How important is that infrastructure of new media to enabling the kind of work that you guys are doing?
Without new media, I don’t know what we would be doing. I don’t think we would exist. We would be like students at Hogwarts without wands. We would be a club at one or two high schools, which would be fine. It’s great to be a club at a high school. But we probably would have a hard time being an organization that has 50 clubs that are really active, which we have right now as far as chapters go, and a message that gets out to 100,000 young people in Japan and in places…just all over. We’ve got kids in Japan that are working on media reform issues in the United States. New media has provided us with an opportunity where you know we always say to young people that they have a voice, that their voice matters. The Harry Potter Alliance communicates with over 100,000 young people across the world. We’ve gotten to old media, Time magazine, front cover of The Chicago Tribune “Business” section – The Los Angeles Times, etc. None of this could’ve happened without new media platforms.
Andrew Slack is the founder and executive director of the Harry Potter Alliance where he works on innovative ways to mobilize tens of thousands of Harry Potter fans through a vibrant online community. Andrew has also co-written, acted in, and produced online videos that have been viewed more than 7 million times. He has taught theater workshops and served as a youth worker for children and adolescents throughout the US and Northern Ireland. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brandeis University, Andrew is dedicated to learning and extrapolating how modern myth and new media can transform our lives both personally and collectively.
I am looking for other compelling stories of how fans are becoming activists. If your fandom is doing something to make the world a better place, drop me a note. I will try to feature other projects through my blog in the future.