The Harry Potter Alliance: Connecting Fan Interests and Civic Action
The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) is a nonprofit organization, established in 2005 by activist Andrew Slack. Inspired by the student activist organization “Dumbledore’s Army” in the Harry Potter narratives, the HPA uses parallels from the fictional content world as an impetus for civic action. It mobilizes young people across the U.S. around issues of literacy, equality, and human rights, and in support of charitable causes.
The Civic Paths Project at the University of Southern California has been engaging in qualitative research on HPA since 2009, examining the intersections between participatory culture and civic engagement.1 They consider HPA an example of a Participatory Culture Civics (PCC) organization, which build bridges between cultural and political participation. PCC organizations are rooted within participatory cultures (Jenkins et al. 2006) and build upon their structures, but they overlay an aspect of organizing and mobilizing for explicit civic purposes. As an organization that links young people’s interests, peer relations, and civic engagement, HPA also exemplifies the principles of connected learning.
The participants in the Harry Potter Alliance are mostly, but not exclusively, Harry Potter Fans. Building mostly on volunteer staff members and a widely dispersed network of local chapters, the HPA has run a diverse set of its own campaigns, as well as supporting the campaigns of other organizations. An example of an ongoing HPA campaign is the annual Accio book drive, where members have donated over 87,000 books to local and international communities. Another successful campaign was Wizard Rock the Vote, where HPA members registered 1100 voters in Harry Potter themed “Wizard Rock” concerts across the country. An example of a successful partnership was when HPA raised over $123,000 for Partners in Health in Haiti in two weeks, as part of the Helping Haiti Heal campaign, enabling them to send five cargo planes full of medical supplies.
The organization relies on an openly networked structure; it connects fans through campaigns and calls to action, a loosely knit network of chapters, and an online presence that includes discussion forums, a well-designed national website, and presence on wide ranging social media platforms. There is a core leadership and staff at the national level, but also a constant give and take with local leadership and chapters. As such, HPA includes both explicitly designed elements as well as a responsive structure that draws from the emergent and networked properties of the Harry Potter fandom.
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The starting point for HPA is fan interest and engagement. For many participants in HPA, their involvement does not stem primarily from a sense of civic duty or obligation. Instead, members describe being motivated through the interconnection of civic engagement with activities that are fun, social, playful, or emotionally satisfying. One participant in HPA describes how the fun link to Harry Potter “encourages people do to charitable things that they might not otherwise do.”
The content of Harry Potter becomes a lens through which young people can understand and engage with social issues. HPA’s mission statement is explicit about starting with young people’s fan identities as a jumping off point for civic engagement:
Our mission is to empower our members to act like the heroes that they love by acting for a better world. By bringing together fans of blockbuster books, TV shows, movies, and YouTube celebrities we are harnessing the power of popular culture toward making our world a better place. Our goal is to make civic engagement exciting by channeling the entertainment-saturated facets of our culture toward mobilization for deep and lasting social change.
For HPA, storytelling plays an important role in the process which founder Andrew Slack terms “cultural acupuncture” (Slack, 2010). This refers to using ideas from the culture which are of particular resonance to audiences, and by ‘pushing these areas’, creating a civic effect. The HPA uses cultural acupuncture by connecting their actions and goals to themes, stories, and characters from the fictional story world, in ways that powerfully resonate with fans of the series. Participants are mobilized as “Dumbledore’s Army of the real world” in campaigns such as Not In Harry’s Name which pressures Warner Brothers into using Fair Trade chocolate for its Harry Potter Chocolates. Warner Brothers is framed as a recalcitrant muggle, and HPA participants are encouraged to send them letters, or “video howlers,” inspired by the exploding red envelopes sent by wizard parents to their children at Hogwarts.
As one participant describes: “There is this huge fan group that has been moved emotionally by these Harry Potter books and by the idea that the weapon we have is love and that love ultimately is something that can change the world.”
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Drawing from fan culture means sharing in the strength of the story and characters, as well as the strength of the existing fan community. The Harry Potter fandom is one of the largest, most networked, sociable, and engaged in the world, and HPA builds on existing fan relationships and forms of sociability. Active fans are already involved in fan clubs, conventions and online discussions, and often have local fan friends who they share their interests with. Fan culture is grounded in a strong peer-to-peer ethic of sharing news and information, creating and commenting on each other’s work, and enjoying social time together. Because of this tight-knit community, the HPA has also seen success with crowdsourced fundraising campaigns. Their 2012 "Equality FTW (For The Win)" Indiegogo campaign sought to raise $50,000 to fund a year's worth of equality-based campaigns around social issues such as LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, and equal access to education. By their fundraising deadline, they had raised nearly double their expected amount.
The HPA and individual chapters consciously see themselves not only as organizations with civic goals, but also ones that are constituted on social relationships. HPA mandates that there are at least two chapter organizers to share the burden. Chapters often begin with the organizers bringing together a group of their friends, which may or may not yield a large enough initial group. Group activities can often be purely social in nature, like going ice skating or out for hot chocolate. Organizers stress the strength of the social relationships between members, and often friendships extend well beyond the official activities of the group.
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Although fun and social in nature, involvement in HPA pushes young people to connect their recreational interests to social and political issues that they might not otherwise be familiar with. Because HPA turns its attention to many issues, ranging from net neutrality to fair trade and voter registration, this forces participants to study up in a range of new areas. Almost every campaign is accompanied by a period of learning about the new issue and making sense of it. Chapter leaders will often educate the group on a new issue. Participants also talk about how involvement in HPA helped them see the political messages within Harry Potter. The Pasadena, California HPA chapter has gone as far as opening a 6-week study group on “Harry Potter as a tool for social change”, discussing links between the narratives and real-world issues. In other words, HPA is a site of hybridization and translation between political and fantasy-centered frames of reference.
HPA builds connection to civic and academic domains in a more concrete way by establishing chapters within high schools and colleges. Establishing a chapter involves writing a constitution, creating a proposed budget, and recruiting teachers and professors as mentors. When students are able to officially register their chapter as a school club, they are rewarded with space and resources, as well as visibility at the school or campus that helps with recruitment. HPA members have been successful in opening over a hundred chapters across the US and overseas, the majority of which are based in universities and high schools. This success is testament to how organizers have been able to advocate for their fan interest at their schools, and connect their interest-driven activities to recognition in their academic institution.
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The HPA is built around a model of open, networked participation, where fans are invited to participate online, as volunteer staff, and in local chapters. Barriers to initial entry are quite low, and participants can easily climb up the ladder of engagement to take on more responsibility, moving from engaging in online campaigns and discussions, to organizing their own chapters or taking on staff positions at the national organization. All of these roles are visible and transparent online, and all chapters are required to have some form of online presence, even if it is a simple Facebook page. All chapters are featured on the main HPA web site, providing visibility and recognition.
HPA members are generally net savvy, and use a wide range of new media tools. This includes a Ning group for online discussion and organizing, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and a regular vlog on YouTube. The organization also uses Livestream to broadcast its events. The national organization’s staffing is centered on these various online outlets, with an evolving set of teams that staff each social media platform, fundraising, chapters, and the like.
In addition to partnering with other civic organizations and their campaigns, the HPA builds on partnerships with other groups within Harry Potter fandom to recruit members and increase its reach. The Harry Potter fandom is immense and highly developed, including many different outlets for fan creativity, including fan conventions, fan fiction, role-playing games, wizard rock concerts featuring Harry-Potter themed songs, theater and musical productions and Quidditch—a new (and growing) sport. Building on these structures of the fandom is what has helped establish the HPA from its onset, and these partnerships are continuously used to further the group’s goals. These different venues are used to raise awareness and recruit members to the HPA, and even Harry Potter fans that are not HPA members often know about the organization and may casually engage with it.
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Shared purpose in HPA is defined by the values put forward by the Harry Potter stories, applied to real life issues. The orientation toward a broader collective purpose is baked into the mission of the organization. Working towards collective goals, combined with the social dimension, is what drives engagement. Many chapter organizers find that the best attended meetings are those that are either mostly social, or those that involve a concrete voluntary activity, such as packing up books for donations, filling candy gift bags for orphans, or registering voters at a wizard rock concert.
During one major campaign, the Chase Community Giving competition, HPA leaders learned that their sense of shared purpose could extend well beyond the Potter fandom. In 2010, the HPA participated in the Chase Community Giving competition, which awarded $250,000 for a non-profit that would garner the largest amount of votes on Facebook. Around the competition, the organization focused outward, with the aim of reaching the maximum amount of people who were asked to go on Facebook and vote for the HPA. Since the Chase Community Giving competition was one that was based on votes, and where each vote counts the same whether it comes from a highly involved member or from a random supporter, this was an occasion where the HPA focused its energies outward, beyond the Harry Potter fan base and toward anyone who can lend a vote. Reaching out beyond the immediate Harry Potter fan base enabled the organization to widen its reach and its member base, which was exemplified by a sharp increase in requests to open new chapters after the competition. The campaign reinforced the feeling that the idea behind their organization is one that can be widely understood, not just by Harry Potter fans. Just as the Harry Potter fandom has become a focus for intergenerational connection, appreciation of the HPA extends beyond a narrow youth fan base.
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Media production is increasingly a central activity of HPA, building on existing fan orientations to making, remaking, and sharing media. Production is often centered on the narrative reworking of Harry Potter stories with civic/activist goals in mind. Though not all HPA members identify as active fans, several of the interviewed members did previously participate in fan-related content production. Media production for HPA also serves more practical goals than fan content production, such as creating chapter web pages. The HPA provides some production support to the chapters, while also encouraging local chapters to draw on any expertise that they may have within their local group, or use simple, accessible tools to get their message out. On the national level, the HPA communicates with members through a regular blog, as well as an increasingly popular vlog on YouTube.
HPA produced media generally has a DIY, fan-made feel. This creates a more equal opportunity for members to contribute their own stories, which are often specifically elicited and invited by the organization. Some examples are included within the Deathly Hallows campaign. In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando, some of the rides had body size restrictions which had angered several fans, leading to the proposal of the “body bind horcrux” as a social project for the HPA. HPA members were invited to create blogs and vlogs in which they denounce harmful body images. Members, mostly but not exclusively female, shared stories about their own experiences with body image issues in an open and candid manner. Some of these stories were directly linked to shared experiences of Harry Potter fans: Members thus used storytelling to not only create awareness to a shared issue (body image) and encourage to action (encouraging healthy behaviors in self and others), but also to create a sense of shared identity by discussing issues pertinent to the community.
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Challenges and Opportunities
HPA represents a connected learning environment that uniquely ties together young people’s fannish interests with civic action and political awareness. It accomplishes this through storytelling that hybridizes real world and fantasy-based narratives, and building an open network that enables young people to connect to collective conversations and calls to action. HPA exemplifies the effective use of open, online networks and social media to draw together local, institution-based chapters. It also demonstrates how the connected learning model can support civically-oriented outcomes.
Certain features of the Harry Potter fandom—its intergenerational appeal, its highly networked and mobilized nature, and its orientation towards civic virtue—have made it an ideal source of material and fan energy to drive the mission of HPA. These strengths of the Harry Potter fandom also point to the challenges that HPA faces as the Harry Potter fandom matures and new fandoms, such as those surrounding Twilight, Glee and the Hunger Games have captured young people’s interests. In response to this changing space of opportunity, HPA has started its Imagine Better project, which brings the HPA approach to other fandoms. They launched their Hunger Is Not A Game campaign in tandem with the release of the first Hunger Games movie, in support of the Oxfam GROW campaign against world hunger. The challenge for HPA will be to continue to grow and evolve with the rapidly changing landscape of young people’s media engagements. If it is successful in this, Harry Potter Alliance may prove to be an inspiration for youth activism well beyond a specific fan base, providing a model for reaching all youth with a passion for popular culture.
1This research was initially supported by Spencer Foundation and currently by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Youth & Participatory Politics Network, where it is part of a larger case study conducted by Neta Kligler-Vilenchik on groups building on fan communities to encourage civic engagement. See Kligler-Vilenchik et al. 2012 for more information.
Case Study compiled by: Neta Kligler-Vilenchik & Sangita Shresthova