You can't cast a spell to fix the problems of the world we live in. But that doesn't mean you can't try to reach for a more practical magic.
Andrew Slack, founder of the Harry Potter Alliance, believes in the power of storytelling as a way to help alleviate the ills of the world. "We're harnessing the power of imagination to 'imagine better,'" he said.
He was referring to a quote from Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling from a 2008 commencement speech at Harvard--"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." Rowling was not talking about her blockbuster book series, but of the individual capacity to effect change. Even in a world void of wands, wizards and witchcraft, Rowling wanted her fans to funnel the inspiration of creativity into a pathway for better thinking about how to change this world.
With the Harry Potter Alliance, Andrew is doing exactly that. After falling in love with the Harry Potter series, he realized that the immense fervor that these stories generated could be turned towards real social transformation.
Andrew, who used to perform in sketch comedy across the nation, doesn't believe that social justice has to be a burden. "I could bring in a thousand people to a show and I knew that an activist group could bring in 15 or 20," he said. "It's really important to see that as humans we can go to entertainment first. That's where things begin--the power of story, the power of myth."
No modern myth has permeated youth culture quite so unstoppably as Harry Potter, one of the largest franchises in history. "J.K. Rowling was making connections to millions of people, but also drawing parallels to our political lives as a collective humanity and pointing to a new vision with that," Andrew said.
The sheer enthusiastic mass of the fandom sparked something in Andrew, who pointed to Dumbledore's Army, a student activist group started in book five, where Harry and his friends come together to battle the dark forces that have begun to manifest at Hogwarts.
"What could happen if we could motivate Harry Potter fans to use parallels in the books to be heroes in our world?" Andrew remembers thinking. "If we love the books so much that we go on these websites and spend so much time, energy and resources, surely we could act as Harry would in our world, we could do things."
So in 2005, Andrew joined up with the wizard rock group, Harry and the Potters ("you can't have a nerdier thing than wizard rock," Andrew added) and launched the Harry Potter Alliance, a way to energize people who were captivated by the story of Harry Potter, and might be just as interested in participating in some real-world heroics.
Andrew started out by writing an action alert comparing global warming to Voldemort's unheralded return to the wizarding world, for the like ways in which each issue was being ignored, to the possible detriment of many. Using the wide MySpace presence of Harry and the Potters, he was able to blast the alert to tens of thousands of fans.
"Within hours, we had thousands of requests from people who said they've always dreamed of doing something like this," he said. Soon enough, the major Harry Potter websites--fanbases drawings hundreds of thousands of visitors--wanted in. J.K. Rowling brought even more attention to the cause when she praised the HPA in an interview, letting the organization begin to explode.
"We created a new model. We began working with nonprofit groups to bring people to them who'd never have heard of them otherwise," Andrew said. "We had the backing basically of every facet of the Harry Potter fan community."
When disaster struck in Haiti last year, the Harry Potter Alliance dropped their entire agenda to lend a hand.
"We began harnessing this incredible vehicle we had to go to all sorts of other fan communities," he said. "Within a week we got over 20 fan communities organized and we pulled our network together."
The HPA were able to get a signed book by the entire cast of the movies, a set of books signed by J.K. Rowling herself, and, branching out to other fan communities, exclusive art from Where the Wild Things Are and Ghostbusters.
"It was an incredible coalition of fan communities of all kinds, of people who love stories
working together to help the story of individuals in Haiti," Andrew said. They worked with Partners in Health under the campaign name Helping Haiti Heal, and raised over $123,000 within a few weeks, getting five cargo planes filled with medical supplies to the region (three were named 'Harry,' 'Ron,' and 'Hermione').
For Andrew, storytelling has always been a part of his life and personality. His mother, an art teacher, encouraged his creative instinct from the very beginning. From infant videos where his baby babbles seem to form a mysterious narrative, to crying over E.T. in the theater as a kid, to gathering around the bunk at camp and telling scary ghost stories to a rapt crowd of fellow children, Andrew has always understood the way that narrative helps us understand ourselves and our world, letting us connect with the people around us.
"It's always been about expressing a story," he said. "I love listening to people share their personal stories." That love mixed with the realization that stories could also be the locus for social change when he was in college at Brandeis, when he encountered the victims of trauma at a center on campus. "The power of personal narrative" began to really take shape for him as portal for activism.
Much has changed since then. "There was a time when me and two other people were the organization," Andrew recalled. "That has long since passed and there are a lot of amazing people who put their time and energy into it."
The Harry Potter Alliance is currently focusing on The Deathly Hallows Campaign, where they take on seven horcruxes of the modern world (for the uninitiated, a horcrux as its defined in a land without magic, is an evil to be conquered). Among other things, the horcruxes include the Dementor horcrux (depression and anxiety), the Body Bind horcrux (body image issues) and the Starvation Wages horcrux (for fair trade chocolate) among others. The campaign will end in July with the release of the last Harry Potter movie, where the HPA plans to launch a new part of the organization.
Andrew recognizes that seven campaigns in nine months is a lofty goal, but he's confident that the power of stories, and the people who love them, will once more step up.
"We are in the last time that Harry Potter will be as relevant as it is now," Andrew said. "We're pulling out all the stops."
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