‘Imagine Better’: Can Harry Potter Change the World?

Stories are dangerous. They have the ability to re-make the world; to take us outside of ourselves, and make real the experiences, feelings, and situations of other people in other places. Stories activate our imaginations and rearrange the furniture of our minds. This is why narrative—may it take the form of myth, folklore, parable, or history—has always been such an integral part of religious life and the formation of religious imagination. Historically, stories have been vehicles for moral formation, though their ability to influence the world has been used to subvert hegemonic power as well as to bolster it.

Harry Potter is the world’s most popular series of children’s books—and one of the most contentious, coming in at number one on The American Library Association’s list of “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009.” The film series, the seventh of which was released last weekend, is the highest-grossing series of all time, surpassing both Star Wars and the James Bond films—all 22 of them.

Harry Potter, the story goes, is a special young man and a talented wizard, who—with a lot of magic and the support of a strong network of friends and allies—is able to beat back the forces of evil and change the world. Of course, it’s the details that made the series so wildly popular; details that combine to create an alternative world of wizards, muggles, and good-versus-evil that has captured public imagination on an unparalleled scale.

Yet the response to Harry Potter from religious communities has been mixed at best. Some denounced the series as satanic, while others embraced the magical vision of tolerance and empowerment. J.K. Rowling explained in a 2007 Time magazine article that even though the books contain Christian imagery, she “did not set out to convert anyone to Christianity… It is perfectly possible to live a very moral life without a belief in God… I’m opposed to fundamentalism in any form… And that includes my own religion.”

She further elaborates by asking, “What did my books preach against throughout? Bigotry, violence, struggles for power, no matter what.” The continued popularity of Harry Potter stems, at least in part, from the power and universality of its message. Rowling succeeded in creating an alternative world that is so real, and so compelling, that it makes you want to become a part of it.

J.K. Rowling’s creations have taken on new life as they are embraced by fans that make them their own. Fans joined together to create Harry Potter social network sites such as The Leaky Cauldron, and Mugglenet, which also features extensive archives of fan fiction and fan art. In addition, Harry Potter has also inspired the creation of a genre of music called Wizard Rock (commonly referred to as “wrock”) as well as the creation of the International Quidditch Association, which held its fourth annual Quidditch World Cup on Nov. 13-14, 2010, in New York City. Potter fans are often passionate, creative, and imaginative, and no organization demonstrates this more clearly than the Harry Potter Alliance.

The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) was founded in 2005 by Andrew Slack, Executive Director, and Paul DeGeorge, of wrock band Harry and the Potters, as an organization whose mission is to draw on the language and lessons of Harry Potter to create real world social change. Their vision was to create a Dumbledore’s Army of Harry Potter fans that work for justice in the real world. As they explain:

Just as Dumbledore’s Army wakes the world up to Voldemort’s return, works for equal rights of house elves and werewolves, and empowers its members, we: Work with partner NGOs in alerting the world to the dangers of global warming, poverty, and genocide. Work with our partners for equal rights regardless of race, gender, and sexuality. Encourage our members to hone the magic of their creativity in endeavoring to make the world a better place. Join our army to make the world a safer, more magical place, and let your voice be heard!

The HPA organizes their efforts into campaigns designed to revolve around important cultural and political events. Their initial efforts were focused on raising awareness of genocide in Darfur. Since then, other campaigns have been dictated by the US political calendar. These include Wrock 4 Equality in October 2009, where the HPA campaigned for LGBT rights in Maine. Still other campaigns are driven by current events. The biggest of these to date was the Helping Haiti Heal campaign, during which the HPA along with other fan groups, raised $123,000 in just two weeks for medical supplies for their NGO partner, Partners In Health, in the wake of the January, 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

The HPA also runs an annual book drive, called Accio Books!, through which they have donated more than 55,000 books since 2009. Their most high-profile campaign to date was HPA for the Win in June 2010, during which HPA mobilized huge numbers of online voters from across fandoms and online communities to win a $250,000 grant from the Chase Community Giving contest on Facebook.

Then there’s the current “Deathly Hallows” campaign, which centers on the release date of a Harry Potter movie—in this case, The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 on Nov. 19. The Deathly Hallows campaign will run for nine months—the time between the two final movies—during which time the HPA will be organizing fans to destroy seven real world horcruxes (an evil magical object used to attain immortality). This campaign is designed to run as a parallel between the actions of Harry, who must destroy Voldemort’s seven horcruxes before the end of the final book in order to bring about Voldemort’s demise, and the actions of the HPA.

In the five years since its creation the HPA has grown into a sophisticated and highly coordinated network of staff and volunteers who maintain an impressive online and offline presence. There is no question that the HPA would not and could not exist without the existence of the internet and, more specifically, social networking and new media technology. The sheer number of channels through which HPA staff and volunteers reach out to potential members is staggering. They include old-fashioned email lists, the HPA website, the HPA blog, the HPA Ning social network, meetup.com, myspace, Livestream, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. The HPA also offers many levels of involvement—everything from simply learning about the campaigns to talking about them online, participating in them, volunteering with the HPA, and donating money.

But where does all this lead? Can Harry Potter fans, and the HPA in particular, really change the world? Can they really educate and mobilize youth to be more socially aware and civically engaged? Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a piece in The New Yorker, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” comparing the effectiveness of social media activism with the protests and activism of the civil rights movement. The conclusion Gladwell draws from his analysis, as is evident in the title, is to dismiss the effectiveness of new social media by arguing that it operates off of weak ties, rather than the strong ties needed to engage in dangerous, high-risk activism. In addition, he argues that the success of high-risk activism also requires strong hierarchies with a clear leadership, chain of command, and accountability. This is not something that more diffuse social networks can provide, he observes, and so they lack both strategy and coherence.

To be fair, Gladwell makes some important observations about the shortcomings of social media, though in the end his comparisons are unbalanced. Far from having forgotten what activism is, many are recognizing that it can take many forms. Joining the “Save Darfur Coalition” on Facebook or organizing a blood or bone marrow donation drive may not, on their own, “require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices,” but there are ways to employ social media that do. The definition of activism is contextual and always changing, as are the strategies employed in its name; it’s shortsighted to think that all effective challenges to hegemonic power must take one particular form.

The HPA is attempting to take activism in a new direction. Media and culture scholar Henry Jenkins conducted an interview with HPA’s Executive Director Slack in 2009, where he spoke at length about his vision of “fan activism” that is geared to bridge “participatory culture and democratic participation.” He passionately describes how the HPA targets young people who are turned off by traditional activism or whose opinions and insights may not be valued. In “Part One” of the interview he explains that:

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 NGOs. 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 are also building a way for each member to direct the destiny of what they and the larger organization are working on.

The HPA offers some opportunities for direct action, but they also serve as a gateway or conduit to other activist opportunities. Certainly not all of these moments will be direct challenges to systemic change, and perhaps none of them will lead to so-called high risk activism, but the HPA opens the door to civic engagement in new ways. They employ the power of imagination, humor, and play in their campaigns while at the same time making real change seem possible. Slack goes on to note in “Part 2” that it is easy for people to become overwhelmed by the enormity of a social problem—so much so that they just shut down and turn away. The HPA seeks to make activism fun and deadly serious—something they refuse to see as mutally exclusive.

At the same time, it is significant that the HPA is based on the world of Harry Potter, and emerged from out of the Harry Potter fandom, of which it remains an integral part. As Anna van Someren explains in her case study of the HPA for the project From Participatory Culture to Public Participation:

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-mined 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.

The HPA campaigns are all designed, as Slack explains, to “make this myth come to life.” There is something more going on in the HPA—an organization whose very existence is dependent on the mechanisms of social media—than Gladwell can account for in his thin description of that phenomenon. In his article “Avatar Activism” Jenkins identifies the phenomenon of the HPA as an example of “participatory culture” whereby the innovation of “digital media has allowed many more consumers to take media into their own hands, hijacking culture for their own purposes… fans are acquiring skills and building a grassroots infrastructure for sharing their perspectives on the world.”

In particular, the HPA combines the reach of social networking, the innovation of digital media, and the power of imagination and storytelling to inspire young people to care about the world and to be engaged in its development.

In her 2008 Harvard commencement speech, Rowling reminded us that “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.” This is the message at the heart of the Harry Potter Alliance. I am not sure how long the story of Harry Potter will continue to have traction with the public imagination after the final film finishes its run next year, but for now the HPA makes the argument that social change can be both fun and accessible. It may not enable the kind of systemic social change that truly alters the status quo, but the HPA is introducing a new generation of young people to the power and importance of being socially aware and engaged. This is at least a very important first step.

Battle lines are drawn every day around whose stories get told and how. Whether we are talking about movies and books or the public discourse over morality, it’s a vital issue to conservatives, progressives, and everyone in between. Whoever tells the better story, it seems, owns the discourse. Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff has told that story in a series of publications on the use of framing in political rhetoric.   

The growth of digital culture and social media has created a paradigm shift in the way that information is distributed and received so the impact of Harry Potter’s message doesn’t have to stop at the end of the last book or final movie. Literature that captures the popular imagination is transformed, elaborated on, and magnified by fans in such a way that it becomes part of the fabric of everyday life. Fan communities link the power of narrative to the power of community, ritual, and practice (check out the HPA flashmob duel in NYC on opening night of The Deathly Hallows). These are some of the same strategies employed by religious groups to create meaning and belonging. The creativity and success of the HPA suggest that the door is open to alternative sources of moral formation in a way that has never before been possible. Stories are indeed dangerous, and when they bring together a group of people armed with a coherent, powerful message, they can change the world.