Andrew is unleashing the voice of today’s fan communities and using the power of popular culture to amplify the effectiveness of nonprofits and educators.
The New Idea
For centuries, people young and old have been swept up by the hero’s journey, told and retold in countless ways through oral and written stories, and more recently, film. Despite our present oversaturation in such tales, however, young people today widely report feelings of personal and civic complacency. Through the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), Andrew is working to create a platform through which today’s vast online fan communities can become the heroes they read about, rather than mere voyeurs, and in so doing, harnessing the power of popular culture to make social change popular.There are today over 240 HPA chapters, largely on high school and college campuses in over 20 countries on 5 continents, who together operate as an open network, wherein fans are invited to participate online, as volunteer staff, and in local chapters. To date, HPA members have built libraries across the world and donated about 200,000 books locally and internationally. They have been credited with having helped to pass marriage equality in Rhode Island and Maine, as well as the Maryland Dream Act, and raised $123,000 in two weeks for Partners in Health, following the earthquake there. To Andrew, however, such achievements are dwarfed by a much bigger goal and impact: from the outset, he sought a low-barrier way to engage young people in a range of social and political issues that they might not otherwise be familiar with, inspiring in the process a lasting feeling of agency and commitment to social justice. While most active young people come from politically active families, the vast majority of HPA members do not. The result is a powerful model for modern civic engagement: one with vast implications not only for young people and self-described fans of a particular book or movie, but also for cause-based organizations looking to reach and ignite a younger audience.The last several years have served as a proof-of-concept: a laboratory through which Andrew could test different engagement strategies and advocacy tools, in order to deepen the idea’s reach and impact. He is now in the process of taking the principles honed through his work with Harry Potter fans, and applying them to a host of other fan communities through the Imagine Better Network, an emerging coalition of fan communities, nonprofit partners, authors, filmmakers, and other cultural influentials. The efforts are part of what Andrew calls, “cultural acupuncture,” designed to seize powerful threads in our popular culture, and to direct that energy toward positive social ends.
Millennials-—the roughly 80 million Americans born between 1980 and 2000—-are less tied to political, religious, and cultural institutions than any generation before them. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, half of all millennials now describe themselves as political independents and 29 percent are not affiliated with any religion, placing them among the highest levels of institutional disaffection ever recorded.
This tendency to shun institutions has helped to reinforce popular stereotypes, portraying millennials and young people today as self-obsessed, coddled, and politically apathetic: dubbed, in the words of a 2013 Time magazine cover story, as “the me me me generation." Such perceptions are not entirely unfounded: In a 2010 study of nearly 14,000 students, researchers found that college students’ self-reported levels of empathy had fallen since 1980, while another study of students over the same period indicated that young people were more prone to narcissism than generations before them.
Meanwhile, many of today’s leading nonprofits and social entrepreneurs continue to rely on traditional methods of organizing, and are characterized by language that is all too often boring, technocratic, and inaccessible. Few cause-based organizations make any attempt to meet their stakeholders where they are, creating a vast divide between our current social, political, and economic institutions and the stories we cling to through popular culture. Dismissive of the cultural attitudes and trends among millennials and lacking a platform with which to effectively engage them, educators and education organizations, together with politicians and some of today’s most prominent social change leaders, talk about young people rather than with them. The result is that such organizations expend vast amounts of energy without moving the cultural needle, and rarely extend their reach beyond a small body of experts and dedicated followers.
Yet these popular attitudes belie two important trends: first, millennials, having grown up surrounded by unprecedented levels of racial and cultural diversity, are far more accepting of difference than were the generations that came before them, with a vast majority favoring marriage equality, expanded paths to citizenship, and the like. Second, while young people have disengaged in record numbers from traditional institutions, they are more hyper-connected to each other than ever before. As social networks have grown increasingly ubiquitous, young people have found ways to connect directly to one another around issues of shared interest.
The problem, then, is not a lack of caring, but a lack of agency, and a reluctance among young people to exercise their values and beliefs through traditional institutions, be they government, religious, political, or not-for-profit. Although most young people have value systems that recognize that human rights atrocities, inequality, and ecological devastation are very serious issues, they do not feel personally empowered to address them, and are distrustful of the organizations that espouse to do so.
From the outset, Andrew sought to mobilize the existing fan community, rather than create an entirely new network. Doing so, he realized, meant he needed to find a way to translate fans’ cultural and social identity into a shared political and civic identity. He thus began by surfacing parallels in the fictional world fans know and love and our own, creating what he and the fan community call a “Dumbledore’s Army” for the real world.
He developed a careful visual and written communications strategy designed to fully embody the language, story, and metaphors of the Harry Potter series: to the HPA community, illiteracy, inequality, and human rights violations are horcruxes; the plight of werewolves and half-giants forced to live in hiding are the plights felt by the gay community and others forced to live closeted lives; the fight for house-elf rights undertaken by Harry’s best friend is the fight for the rights of oppressed people everywhere.
Andrew sought to forge deep social connections amongst members, and to leverage the existing social ties within the fan community, by combining online and offline organizing strategies. There are today 248 HPA chapters in 38 states and 23 countries, ranging from high school chapters to college and university chapters, and others that meet in libraries, parks, and other public spaces. Leaders from each chapter receive programming and training from the headquarters staff, but otherwise operate as a decentralized network, with the freedom to design and develop their own campaigns and initiatives in response to their local context.
Andrew saw that the fan community was more than simply a body of spectators: they were, as he puts it, “cultural remixers,” using the stories of popular culture as a springboard toward creating their own content. Rather than ask fans to stuff envelopes, or merely sign petitions, he thus invites them to do what they’re already best at: creating YouTube videos, viral memes, and blog posts of their own to advance to human rights, equality, media reform advocacy, and a wide array of other social change issues and goals. Members have written Wizard Rock songs championing marriage equality, their content has been picked up by the very same organizations they’re supporting, producing an ever-widening viral reach. His goal is to train young people not to simply be foot soldiers in social change, but instead to lead the way, using a strengths-based approach that starts with what they know how to do online.
Key to his success has been a sophisticated strategy designed to surface connections between multiple issue areas. Rather than run a series of one-off campaigns, or attempt to draw attention and loyalty to a single issue area, Andrew and the team look for the broader frame, with the goal of equipping members to become more effective advocates across a wide range of issues—changing the very way in which members see themselves in relation to the world around them.
A 2007 campaign, “Rocking Out Against VoldeMedia,” conducted in partnership with the Stop Big Media Coalition and FreePress.net, used the subject of media reform to explain how media ownership and representation critically influence issues of class, race, gender, environment, and even genocide. The campaign, which sought to stop the FCC chairman from loosening media ownership rules, went on to win, with the leaders of the partnering organizations publicly crediting the Harry Potter fan community for having played a role. Andrew and the team conducted a campaign titled “The Body Bind Horcrux,” to engage young people in a discussion about the pervasive images in arts and entertainment and popular culture at large, touching on issues related to depression, body image and objectification in the media, and the multiple sources of those issues. They sought to elevate the need for young people to feel empowered in their bodies, and employed various gaming techniques designed to both educate members about the mind-body connection and to employ various meditative techniques and exercise and healthy eating ideas, and to open up a public dialogue about the pain, isolation, and prominence of eating disorders.
Andrew understood that giving young people a voice, without the tools and legitimacy to make those voices heard, would only reinforce existing stereotypes. He had to ensure that the organization and its members were taken seriously, and that the imaginative tactics they used to drive engagement were not dismissed as lacking substance. In order to counter the mistaken belief that “serious issues” require “serious talk” by “serious people,” he set out to find and partner with highly influential, established organizations who could bring credibility to the HPA’s efforts. To date, the HPA has teamed up with a wide array of nonprofit and foundation partners, including Partners in Health, Oxfam, The Enough Project, Freepress.net, The Gay-Straight Alliance Network, United to End Genocide, Maine Equality, The Make It Better Project, Reach Out, and Rock the Vote.
Beyond merely legitimizing the efforts of the fan community, these partnerships have served to help today's leading cause-based organizations better connect with young people whose voices are frequently excluded or undervalued by those advancing social change. Oxfam has incorporated principles from the Hunger is Not a Game campaign in their overall youth outreach strategy. The anti-slavery advocacy group Walk Free adopted the language HPA developed for its Harry Potter-themed campaign against child slavery and quintupled their reach. Define American and several immigration advocacy groups have embraced HPA’s “Superman Is An Immigrant” campaign.
Andrew is thus working to change not only the way in which fan communities see themselves and their purpose, but to change the way in which nonprofits see and engage young people at large. To that end, he is now in the process of codifying the methodology honed over the last few years in working with the Harry Potter fan community, and creating a platform through which it can be shared widely with other fan communities and leading nonprofits alike, through the launch of what he calls the Imagine Better Network. Still in its initial phases, the Imagine Better Network will live within the HPA, serving as its distribution arm, with the goal of applying the same set of insights to engage other fandoms beyond Harry Potter—particularly those that follow the hero’s journey, and align with social justice themes—along with nonprofits, educators, and storytellers.
Already, Andrew has engaged fans of The Hunger Games—who overlap considerably with the Harry Potter community—in two successful campaigns that generated wide media coverage. Most recently, its “Odds in Our Favor” campaign, which spotlights economic inequality, secured participation from the head of the AFL CIO and Senator Elizabeth Warren, along with National Domestic Workers Alliance and Raise Up New York, and has garnered attention in dozens of media outlets, including CNN and the Los Angeles Times. In July 2013, Andrew partnered with a variety of national immigrants’ rights groups in a campaign called “Superman is an Immigrant,” timed to the release of the most recent Superman movie.
In 2013, the Pearson Foundation—whose parent company is among the world’s largest textbook makers—hired Andrew and the HPA to help them develop new curricula, using popular culture and the stories kids are reading at home to engage them in issues in the real-world. Thanks to the work of the HPA, MacArthur has shifted its approach with Digital Media Learning, from a focus on media literacy to one on civic engagement. And dozens of other organizations and leading foundations have reached out to Andrew for help in crafting their own youth engagement strategies.
Andrew was enamored by stories from an early age. The son of an art teacher and an entrepreneur, he and his family drew a sharp cultural contrast to the upper middle class suburbia in which they lived. He started his first storytelling club at the age of 8, gathering friends in the neighborhood at his house, to act out fantasy stories they—or more frequently, he—made up.
Despite years of severe bullying, he decided in the 8th grade to run for president of the student council. In place of a speech, he used a rap he had written, and won in a landslide. He went on to win the next four terms while in high school, using a new rap each time, and vowed to create an environment that felt safe for every student and fellow non-conformist. More than a decade before the anti-bullying fervor would sweep education, he started an anti-bullying club, and later, grappling with his parents’ divorce and a troubled home-life, he founded a club called “Coffee Talk,” where students could talk about real issues over coffee.
As a college student at Brandeis, he immersed himself in the history of the anti-war and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, studying the community organizing tactics of Saul Alinsky and volunteering with trauma victims in Northern Ireland, while studying peace and reconciliation there alongside more than two dozen peace activists from around the world. He hosted a television show on campus called Late Night Snack with Andrew Slack, and cofounded a comedy group called the Late Night Players with a friend with whom he would go on to launch the Harry Potter Alliance. Professors encouraged him to combine his artistic sensibilities and creativity with his passion for social movement-building, and it was then that he first started to formulate ideas about how to combine popular culture and literature with activism, to create a more powerful and effective set of outcomes. Upon graduating in the early 2000s, he became a professional performer, touring college campuses with his comedy routine. He soon discovered that while he could pack an auditorium, the human rights groups on campus would struggle to bring out more than a handful of students to their events. He longed to make social change as compelling as entertainment.
In late 2004, just after JK Rowling announced the title for her sixth book, Andrew began blogging about Harry Potter and its relationship to social change and emotional empowerment. He began to court the Harry Potter fan community to drive traffic to the site, and there discovered a vast, thriving, and innovative community he had never seen before. Mugglenet.com, begun by a 12-year-old, had 100,000 unique visitors each day. The second biggest fan site was started by a professional journalist: a far cry from the socially isolated, convention-going Star Trek fans he’d imagined them to be. Through Harry Potter fan fiction and fan art, young people were becoming writers and artists. Through Harry Potter podcasts and fan flicks, young people were becoming broadcasters, producers, sound technicians, actors, directors, camera people, and more.
He saw in the fan community the vast energy and communications savvy he had longed to find in the activist world. Yet apart from the occasional piecemeal fundraisers for Hurricane Katrina victims, no attempt had been made to channel that energy toward social change.
He began to think, “If Harry Potter were in our world, wouldn’t he do more than simply talk about Harry Potter? Wouldn’t he fight for justice in our world, the way he fought for justice in his?” Millions of people were spending time, energy, and talent celebrating the message of books—-books that held incredible parallels to issues of equality, human rights, and media reform. “Every great wizard in history has started off as nothing more than what we are now: students. If they can do it, why not us?” So says Harry Potter, in a rallying cry to fellow students, which led to their starting Dumbledore’s Army, a student activist club within the books. Together with two friends, including one of the founders of “Wizard Rock” and a prominent voice within the fan community, Andrew set out to build the “Dumbledore’s Army” for the real world.