It’s never been a better (or weirder) time to be a Harry Potter fan. Though the official story is over, new information continues to trickle out. Like the Snitch Dumbledore gave Harry, the story is a möbius strip of “I open at the close.” This year alone, we got new information through J.K. Rowling’s Twitter, a continuation of the story in play form, and a revisit to the universe in the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Harry Potter is the Franchise that Lives, and it’s unsurprising that its fandom continues to be active.
Fandom in its current state has shaken up pop culture for good. Thanks to the internet, fans can make their voices heard, engage with the creators of their favorite stories, and hold them accountable for certain storytelling decisions. Though Harry Potter is not directly responsible for the birth of modern fan fiction — that’s Star Trek — it started the spark of modern fan engagement online. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Harry Potter fandom is one of the most active in the realm of charity work. The Harry Potter Alliance is a nonprofit organization that is geared towards getting Harry Potter fans involved in activism. Its primary areas revolve around the themes of the story: equality, human rights, and literacy.
Inverse spoke with Harry Potter Alliance Communications Director Jackson Bird about how to use fandom as a force for good, the unique aspects of the Harry Potter loyalists, and more.
How did you got involved with the Harry Potter Alliance?
I heard about them through a few different places. I had been a passive observer of the Harry Potter online fan community for many years — just keeping tabs on the fan sites and the podcasts and Wizard Rock. In 2010, the Harry Potter Alliance brought together a bunch of leaders of the fan community and YouTubers and young adult authors to raise money for disaster relief in Haiti. This was right after the earthquake down there. They ended up being able to raise $123,000 — five cargo planes full of supplies to Haiti. I was so impressed with that. So I kept an eye on them and saw on Twitter that they needed a volunteer to do video editing, which is a thing that I do in my spare time. I joined their volunteer staff and eventually became more involved over the years.
What do you think it is about the Harry Potter fandom that lends itself to activism?
J.K. Rowling is an author who does not stray away from any sort of radical revolutionary things in her writing. Right off the bat, the very first sentence was, “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number 4 Privet Drive would have to say that they’re perfectly normal, thank you very much.” And you just know from the beginning that you’re not supposed to like these people. Harry is kind of anti-authoritarian. He doesn’t have reason to trust the government, his teachers aren’t always great, you see a lot of media corruption. And of course the books are full of stuff about discrimination and prejudice, loving and accepting and protecting people who are different than you, even at first if you don’t understand them. It’s a really easy series to be able to be able to draw parallels to our real world, and J.K. Rowling presents them in a way that makes sense to younger people who may have not encountered those issues yet.
Do you think you’re going to work with these new movies and books?
We’re definitely planning a campaign based around Fantastic Beasts this fall. We don’t have any particular action planned around The Cursed Child, but the published text version that you can buy of the play is actually going to be coming out during Geeky Con. The CEO of Geeky Con is actually the president of our board of directors, so the HPA has always had very close ties to that event. We might be involved with things that are going on at Geeky Con, but I don’t think we’ll have any sort of major advocacy campaign around it.
How do you choose issues to campaign around?
It’s a combination of a few factors. We’ve been doing our book drive campaign since 2009. Of course Harry Potter and literacy goes together. For Fantastic Beasts, the obvious answer would be animal rights or something with the environment. We try to tie it into the narrative. Other times it’s something that’s going on in the news that’s important to our community and that we need to take action on. Net neutrality is a good example of that. Or the anti-discrimination bill is being passed in different states that are restriction the rights of LGBT individuals. We don’t have a major campaign around those yet, but we do a lot of small actions because they are current and important to our community. But for the most part, it really has to do a lot with listening to our community, which is the larger Harry Potter fandom at large and what issues are important to them. We do regular surveys with our members to see what they care about, and we just listen to the pulse of the community to decide where we should take action.
By the pulse you mean the people who interact with you through the site or do you also monitor the fan sites?
It’s much more than just the fan sites, it’s social media at large. Anywhere where there are people who identify as being in fandoms or any of the relevant communities. We also work with a lot of librarians, people who frequent the sites like Book Riot, people who are maybe nerds but not quite identifying in fandoms. We do a lot with YouTubers.
Is part of your success being able to utilize fandom to gear it towards a different enthusiasm?
That’s pretty much the original idea with the Harry Potter Alliance. Our founders were trying to find a way to get people really excited about social justice and then saw the phenomenon with Harry Potter and how people generally get excited about pop culture. Certainly as fandoms have become bigger as a concept and this thing that people participate in, it’s been a really strong force. Fans, for decades, have been great activists for their own fandom cause. They’re incredibly well-networked with each other, usually on a global scale. They are very creative, they create pieces of art, they do a lot of writing, they’re great critical thinkers because they do analyses of stories. They’re passionate and can activate their networks really quickly. Those are all skills that you need to be a great activist.
The world has seen fans being activists in many different ways for a long time. It’s usually around the cancellation of a TV show that they love or the book that they love being banned, something like that where it’s just relevant to their fandom. So what we’ve done is take all of that passion and all of those talents and enthusiasm and harness it towards social good in our own world.