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Empowering Young Activists Through Harry Potter Fandom

By Janae Phillips — May 08, 2017 5 min read
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Editor’s note: The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) serves fans of all ages, but most of their members are first time activists and live in 35 countries. Local chapters are based in libraries, universities, communities, and elementary and secondary schools. The organization pioneered a framework in which fans of pop culture behemoths like Harry Potter and the Hunger Games can have huge impact on social causes. For instance, they have collected over 300,000 books, built three libraries, completed nearly a thousand advocacy actions to protect libraries, and sent cargo planes filled with supplies to Haiti. Today, Janae Phillips, Chapters Director, shares ways that young fans can use their enthusiasm to become young leaders.

To learn more, join the author this Thursday, May 11 at 8pm Eastern on Twitter for #Globaledchat!

Youth action campaigns can be challenging to start and organize, but using fandom to spark activism, or fan activism, mobilizes youth to take action to change local or global conditions. The key principles of fan activism can be easily applied to almost any classroom, community, or cause.

1. Use Stories as a Common Language

Activist movements are often accused of using so much jargon that it creates a barrier of entry for new activists. It can often feel that the deeper the subject matter in social justice, the more words and concepts there are to learn. Plus, in a charged activism environment, it can feel intimidating or even scary for a new activist to jump into a discussion—what if they say something wrong, or don’t quite understand the concept? This makes it especially challenging for youth to find their confidence as leaders in their communities, whether that’s for a social cause or civic engagement.

A more accessible entry point is created for new leaders and activists when pop culture is the basis for discussing social issues and leadership concepts. Young fans know their material well—it has been said that fans are, essentially, experts in their field—and are likely more confident discussing that than a new social concept. For example, a discussion about the way Muggleborns are treated in Harry Potter could set the framework for a discussion of racism; or, the prejudice that Remus Lupin faces with his incurable disease can help illustrate the struggles of those with long-term illness or mental health problems. When the Harry Potter Alliance urged fans to think about how Harry would feel about chocolate being produced by child slavery in his name, and whether chocolate made with such evil could still be an effective cure for Dementor attacks, it launched a conversation that evolved into a four-year campaign and over 400,000 signatures demanding Warner Brothers use fair trade chocolate in Harry Potter chocolates. Now, when you see the Fair-Trade certification on your chocolate frog you’ll know it was a direct result of the power of stories to mobilize fans.

Additionally, pop culture can serve as a common language that bridges the gap between differing experiences and contexts. Though youth from two different states or countries may have very different perspectives, a shared interest in Doctor Who provides them a shared language to discuss social issues.

2. Center Learners as Heroes

Youth are told they can be leaders all the time, but how often are they made to feel like it? Take cues from the journeys of young heroes in some of our most beloved stories and consider how youth leadership development can be reframed as a heroic journey. The HPA built its leadership conference, the Granger Leadership Academy, with this intent, structuring the four-day experience to begin with a focus on identifying the learner’s particular experiences, skills, and values that shape them as a hero. From there, focus shifts to working with their own heroic team, and ends with learners participating in a live advocacy experience framed as their own epic battle. In 2016, participants at the academy fought back against threats to libraries, working with the American Library Association to write 50 letters to representatives that advocated for library funding. Not only did they complete this in the span of 40 minutes, they enthusiastically marched the letters off to be mailed with a battle cry of “Hoot! Hoot! Hoot!” (Sometimes we have to make due without real access to an Owl Post.) Leadership is heroic, and by giving youth permission to own the experiences of characters they admire in their favorite stories, we empower them to take ownership of what happens in their communities in the same way those characters do.

3. Embrace Humor

Activism, civic engagement, leadership—these things aren’t easy. The Harry Potter Alliance focuses on building not just accessible activism, but sustainable activism, and that’s accomplished partially by not being afraid to embrace some silliness. Often, educators and organizers may shy away from anything that doesn’t seem to treat subjects with enough seriousness, but this lack of levity can be exhausting and particularly unappealing for youth. Plus, it’s just not sustainable for long-term engagement. Take a tip from storytellers: no good story is without its comedic moments, and the story of social change won’t be, either. Recently, fans sent images of fancy cat plates to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on postcards and on Twitter with the hashtag #DecorateLikeDolores in order to draw attention to education policies, making the connection to the destructive Ministry-appointed Hogwarts professor and her famous collection of decorative cat-themed plates. Don’t be afraid to have fun with the way you approach subjects.

Fandom has become more and more mainstream, but can sometimes still be seen as a distraction for youth that keeps them from “real” engagement. This kind of narrative certainly doesn’t serve to endear youth to a movement, and it cheapens the depth of intellect and creativity that goes into participating in fandom. By embracing fandom and pop culture as the powerful community building force it is, educators and organizers may find a huge untapped well of enthusiasm for making the story of our own world a better one.


Follow the Harry Potter Alliance, Janae, and the Center for Global Education at Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo credit: Harry Potter Alliance.

Caption for first photo: Not In Harry’s Name campaign (fair trade chocolate campaign).

Caption for second photo: Students of the HPA chapter at Bosque School in Albuquerque, NM stand in front of the Little Free Library they created for their community.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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