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Harry Potter Alliance

Case Study: Harry Potter Alliance | Anna van Someren

Party or Politics?
Although it might be difficult to imagine tagging the above photo with the words "civic engagement", such an exercise in taxonomy would not be entirely inaccurate.  On October 24th 2009, in an effort to protect marriage equality in Maine, the Harry Potter Alliance collaborated with LGBT group Massachusetts Equality, Harry Potter fan site The Leaky Cauldron, and wizard rock bands Harry and the Potters and Draco and the Malfoys to organize what might best be described as a social justice extravaganza.  The "wrock" bands played a show, which could be watched worldwide via a live video feed.  Harry Potter Alliance founder Andrew Slack spoke about equal marriage rights, making parallels to social injustice in the Harry Potter books.  Spectators viewing from a distance could communicate live in a chatroom next to the video window.  Between the bands' sets, those attending the concert went out into the city of Portland and canvassed the neighborhoods, talking to locals about voting in support of equal marriage.  At the same time, non-local participants called Maine voters through the phone banking system operated by Massachusetts Equality.

And if seeing the bands perform, and hearing Andrew's speech - which compared Maine's Proposition One to discrimination in the world of Harry Potter - was not enough get people engaged, there was also a competition going on.  Fans could align themselves with their favorite Hogwarts House from the book series, and get points for their House for each call made to a Maine voter.  There was even star power on board:  celebrities from within the Harry Potter fandom were appointed as heads of each house.

During Wrock 4 Equality, participants were drawn into a rich experience through a multi-layered strategy of engagement.  They were offered an opportunity to identify with the story they love, by watching bands perform in character and by taking action on an issue with parallels to the book.  Walking up to stranger's doors and knocking, urging people to vote against Proposition One, fans are able to not only identify with, but embody Harry Potter characters who also work for the issues they believe in.  Participants are further ensconced in their favorite fictional world by being surrounded by like-minded readers, who all share love for the same story.  The entire experience ends up cocooning participants in successive layers of belonging, and it is through creating this sense of intimate community that the HP Alliance succeeds in energizing all of its campaigns.

Andrew Slack describes it as a "oneness feeling":

Part of the obstacle of making phone calls and knocking on doors, you oftentimes feel a little deflated, like 'what's the point of this?', but if you're doing it as part of a global community, and that the whole world is literally watching and doing it with you?  When you're doing activism, you're trying to elevate the human spirit, and when you're doing it and you literally see other human beings doing it on the internet, celebrating it through a book that you love and all these relationships that you love, it really creates this oneness feeling, that allows you to keep knocking on those doors, keep making those phone calls, and get your house to win the house cup.

With a little help from his friends:  Spreading the message

Wrock 4 Equality is the latest in a series of political and philanthropic events organized by the Harry Potter Alliance since it began in 2005.  Slack's personal experience of reading the Harry Potter books compelled him to approach Paul DeGeorge of the popular wizard rock band Harry and the Potters with an idea to start an activist organization modeled on the books.  Slack, passionate about the connections he saw between social conflicts in real world and those in Harry Potter, had been blogging to a small number of readers, and wanted to reach the larger fandom.  When fandom celebrity DeGeorge re-posted one of Slack's messages, over 40 thousand of his myspace friends saw it - Slack had hit at the heart of the fandom, and received an overwhelming response:

I just checked to see what the reaction was to my blog post, and there were hundreds if not thousands of friend requests from all over the world.  And my girlfriend and I just sat there and began crying, hitting refresh, more and more, and the comments coming and saying 'I've always wanted to be part of something like this', 'I've always wanted to be Harry', 'I've always wanted this chance', 'Thank God there's something for me, I didn't know there was something like this, I'm so excited by this'.

Galvanized by this enthusiasm, Slack worked with DeGeorge and other friends to develop a group culture, adopting the slogan "The Weapon We Have Is Love", and producing podcasts and designing campaigns on issues including genocide, LGBT rights, civil rights, workers' rights, and climate change.  There are now 30 voluntary staff members, over 50 local chapters, a small paid staff who meet weekly, and a growing board of directors.  Tapping the network of the larger fan community, the Alliance can seriously boost the participation in campaigns organized by partner NGOs - such as the Save Darfur Coalition and Candles for Rwanda.  The Alliance also runs its own campaigns, such as What Would Dumbledore Do?, and the Accio Book Drive.

Balancing Act :  Managing a dispersed network

Before the Alliance grew to its current size, Andrew Slack and his staff encouraged local chapters to initiate and manage their own projects and activities.  HPA staff offered very little in the way of guidance, beyond the requirement that project goals relate back to the world of Harry Potter.  When monitoring all the individual chapters projects became too much for the chapter coordinator to manage - "she was going to have a meltdown!" - Slack was up against the sprawling challenges of a flat hierarchy.  He went back to the books to find a new structure.  What he came up with was the Chapter Cup model, based on the House Cups of the books.  The staff of the Alliance designs large campaigns, often collaborating closely with partner NGOs.  Individual HPA chapters are challenged to carry out the campaigns in the most creative ways possible, and the chapter which draws the most participation wins the "cup".

At the Harry Potter Alliance website, the chapters section provides evidence of the kind of informal mentorship that is common within participatory culture communities. 
Here, multimedia kits are offered in the resources section.  Included are flier templates, an info sheet, a sample press release, logos, and guides for new chapters such as "Dealing with Difficult Members" and "Writing a Chapter Constitution".

Although the small paid staff offers guidance to chapters and designs major campaigns, close attention is paid to the interests and desires of the larger community.  In weekly staff meetings, they hear from chapter coordinators about the conversations happening in local chapters and on the ning forums.  The Alliance seems to have found a balance between top-down and bottom-up decision making.

Which way in?  Multiple issues and multiple entries

Andrew Slack is strongly committed to creating and nurturing an organization that deals with more than just one issue. When asked if there are any limitations to starting from the Harry Potter world, he considers it a challenge, and says, smiling, "Would I be crazy to say no?  Do you want to test one?  Just give me an issue and I'll try to connect it."

Slack will not identify the issue most important to him, explaining that  "we are working toward building environments that are conducive towards the self-actualization of every individual". Not only are the issues varied, but the large diversity of campaign strategies can attract individuals with different skill sets.  Because participation could mean making a video, helping with a book drive, attending a concert, door-to-door campaigning, or getting involved in online discussions, roles are available for librarians, students, music lovers, video producers, philosophers, administrators, extroverts, introverts - just about anyone.  Slack has a broad vision of how members participate - "we encourage our members to hone the magic of their creativity in endeavoring to make the world a better place."

The network is now so distributed that some people are getting involved without an original interest in Harry Potter.  At the anti-genocide conference Pledge 2 Protect, a young woman rushed up to Andrew Slack to tell him that hearing a 2007 HP Alliance podcast about Darfur was her first introduction to the conflict.  She is now an anti-genocide activist, and an Alliance staff member.

Joseph Campbell activism:  Mythic Characters and Invisible Doorways

In essence, we are traveling into the dark and ancient woods of the human unconscious, into the elusive spiritual realities behind why human beings have ever told stories to our kin within caves, our children within cribs, our brethren around fire pits, and our mass communities within movie theaters.

For members of the HP Alliance, the world of Harry Potter is a deeply meaningful myth that allows them to make sense of the world and of their role within the world.  Current real-world problems - geopolitical and social issues - are framed by the context of the story of Harry Potter.  A shared experience of immersion in a fantastical world fuels readers' desire to, as Slack puts it, "be these characters, not just role play...make this myth come to life." 

For Harry, a long journey leads to new insights, where barriers reveal themselves to be doorways.  Slack calls this the "aha mindset", where boundaries disappear - and imagination plays a crucial role in making this happen.  He calls it "Jungian activism" and "Joseph Campbell activism" where "stories take us out of ourselves".  Slack agrees with JK Rowling, the creator of the Harry Potter universe, that "we don't need magic to transform the world, we just need to imagine better."

Anna van Someren,
Jan 29, 2010, 11:21 AM