The Harry Potter Alliance: A real Dumbledore's Army uses their passion to make a difference

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Apr 6, 2017

There is power in stories. The tales of good versus evil and everything in-between in our pop culture mean a lot to their fans, who often find inspiration in them.

The magical world of Harry Potter created by J.K. Rowling is no different.

There are many inspirational aspects in the story of The Boy Who Lived and his friends facing the evil of Voldemort, but perhaps one of the most powerful is seeing people join together to resist the darkness in the wizarding world. They do this in big ways and small, and notably through forming groups like the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore's Army (DA). The DA in particular is an impressive group consisting of teenagers at Hogwarts who aren't afraid to take a stand no matter what’s happening around them. In fact, this year marks a DA anniversary that shows the very spirit of the group, with it being 20 years since it reformed in the Harry Potter universe in 1997 when Death Eaters were put in control of Hogwarts thanks to Voldemort controlling the Ministry of Magic. Even when their school was taken over, the students found a way to fight.

These characters, their spirit and Rowling's story have touched many lives, making some fans want to stand up to similar evils that exist in our own world. There are numerous ways to do that as individuals and as part of groups addressing problems around the globe. However, for those who want to band together with their fellow Harry Potter fans in particular, channeling the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore's Army and using their shared love to make an impact for good causes, there may be no better option than the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA).

The non-profit was founded in 2005 and brings passionate Harry Potter fans together to make a difference in the real world through efforts on both the global and local levels. It started as an idea from Andrew Slack, who brought the concept to HPA co-founder and fellow Potter fan Paul DeGeorge. DeGeorge first read the Harry Potter novels one summer while in college, when he borrowed the four available at the time from his brother, who was eight years younger. He was struck by how Harry Potter seemed anti-authoritarian.

"I could see Harry reflecting a lot of my punk rock heroes, and I had this idea. What if Harry Potter started his own punk rock band? Sticking it to the man and singing songs about fighting evil," DeGeorge told Syfy Wire. "I had this idea that just kind of stuck in my head and then a couple years later my brother and I started the band Harry and the Potters and that was sort of the concept behind it."

It was a few years after DeGeorge and his brother Joe started the wizard rock band when Slack approached them in an elementary school gymnasium where they were performing. According to DeGeorge, Slack started talking to him about an idea for a real-world Dumbledore's Army and was looking for people in the fan community to help him start it and connect fans to the idea of organizing around social justice issues. Seeing a lot of connections between punk rock and activism, it made sense to DeGeorge to help Slack and foster his idea.

"We became essentially the initial PR firm for the Harry Potter Alliance where Andrew would write these MySpace bulletins and we would post them on our MySpace site," he said. "That was the very early days of how we were connecting people to the Harry Potter Alliance initially was just signal boosting anything Andrew wrote through our MySpace, which reached about a 100,000 people."

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DeGeorge has been on the board of directors since the HPA started, fulfilling a number of roles over the years. Another founding member of the board is current president Melissa Anelli, who has been on the board for nine of the group's 11 years. Her journey as a Harry Potter fan began in 2000 when her sister gave her a copy. She told Syfy Wire she fell for it then and soon began working for fansite The Leaky Cauldron, where she is now the webmistress. She also wrote the book Harry, A History and is the co-executive director of Mischief Management, which runs fan conventions like LeakyCon and GeekyCon. Slack and DeGeorge introduced her to the idea of the HPA and asked her to be on the board to help get it started.

"I thought then and still believe now that the idea that we should be pulling the activism and the heart and the soul at the center of these books out of fiction and into the real world is really valuable," she said.

To Anelli, when the HPA first began pop culture activism wasn't a thing. It's an area that the HPA helped foster over the years into what it is today and now Anelli believes a lot of people are seeing the value of it.

"We've done things like Odds in Our Favor, where we encouraged people to use the symbol within The Hunger Games to stand up against economic inequality and stand up for fairer pay," she told Syfy Wire. "People all over the world were doing the three finger salute from The Hunger Games. That was started by the HPA. Pop culture activism has really taken off."

The Alliance's campaigns address a number of issues and offer a variety of ways for people to take action. They are helping build libraries and raise books for areas in need through Friends of the Apparating Library, offering tools to help the transgender community through Protego and more. On Dec. 2, 2016, they launched Neville Fights Back, a campaign to help inspire people to take action in a number of ways.

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DeGeorge sees the Alliance as unique for how it's an organized way fans can engage in social justice work that's not only about raising money. While they raise money as a non-profit to pay employees, they're trying to get people more involved than that by giving them a deeper connection to issues. A connection that can make them stronger advocates on those issues. One of the defining campaigns that DeGeorge sees as an excellent example of how the Alliance works in this way is Not in Harry's Name. The campaign wanted Warner Bros. to use ethically sourced chocolate in its Harry Potter candy products and after years of work was a success. It began when HPA member Lisa Valdez asked if the group knew where Warner Bros. was sourcing their chocolate. According to DeGeorge, Valdez brought it up because cocoa production can have ties to child labor and slavery.

"Chocolate is such an important part of the Harry Potter books. It's sort of like an antidote to a Dementor attack and it has these magical properties and we didn't think that there should be even a possibility that any cocoa being sold in the name of Harry Potter could have come from unethical sourcing," he explained.

It was a clear connection from the books to a real-world issue that helped get fans excited about the campaign. DeGeorge said that Not in Harry's Name, like all of HPA's campaigns, had more than one goal. It wanted to educate people and make them aware of the issue and also achieve its ultimate objective. Eventually it succeeded in every way. As they partnered with organizations like Walk Free, an anti-slavery group, and even got Rowling involved, they made people think about a topic they probably didn't think of in their day-to-day lives otherwise and Warner Bros. agreed to make all the chocolate sold under Harry's name ethically sourced by being Fair Trade or UTZ certified. It's still not fully implemented yet though, according to DeGeroge.

"It's taking them a year longer to actually implement this on a global scale, but they're getting there," he said. "People have been sending in photos of their chocolate that they bought at the Warner Bros. Studio tour and it says 'this chocolate is UTZ certified' right on the back. It feels really good to see that."

Outside of these campaigns, the HPA also focuses on leadership development. Anelli sees the Granger Leadership Academy (GLA), currently in its third year, as the most important and exciting thing the HPA is doing right now. She sees it as the future not only for the HPA, but for pop culture-based activism in general as it provides tools to help young people who want to become activists but don’t know where to start. 2016's conference was held from March 9 to March 12 in St. Louis, MO.

"The GLA is grounded in the ideals of one Hermione Granger. That when there's something wrong in your society, you should be the one to stand up and fix it. There's an education track and tools for young people and it's really a phenomenal thing," Anelli said.

The HPA also encourages fans to start or join a local HPA chapter. According to DeGeorge they have more than 200 chapters in the U.S. and abroad which you can find on their website. They offer resources to help support those who to want to start chapters and become organizers in their community. Sometimes chapters also connect to larger campaigns, but often DeGeorge said they work autonomously in their own communities at the local level.

"That's probably the starter place for somebody who's like 'this work is really cool and I want to be involved more.' That's absolutely the best way to be involved because then you become the organizer. You become Hermione. You're the one who's organizing in your school or your community," he said.

It's clear fans who love Harry Potter can put their passion to good use with the help of the Alliance, but what exactly is it about the series on a whole that inspires such activism? DeGeorge believes there are many reasons, including how the story's about fighting evil and trying to do good in the world while bad things happen along the way. He said he's finding a lot of inspiration in the series right now after the U.S. presidential election and knows others are feeling the same way.

Between events like the election and a resurgence of the Harry Potter franchise with the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it certainly makes sense that a lot of people would be returning to the wizarding world this year perhaps more than usual. Anelli told Syfy Wire she believes people are more into Harry Potter now than anytime since 2007, that the HPA has absolutely seen an increase in interest and that interest in making the world more like the ideals found in Harry Potter is very high right now, especially due to the election.

DeGeorge pointed to Albus Dumbledore's quote about choosing what is right over what is easy when discussing the series' inspiration.

"It's easy to not do something and I think people get inspired by that. When you see that Harry Potter and his friends were really just a bunch of high school students who didn't even know all that much magic when you get down to it. It's not like magic was really solving their problems," he said. "It was really just that they were dedicated to fighting the good fight and that's what got them there. I think the stories themselves are inspiring."

Since the books were so widely read, he also sees them as acting like a kind of "cultural template for social justice" with most people able to recognize a Harry Potter analogy. It means the work they do on a national level can get publicity and be understood by many due to the franchise's wide readership and viewership. To DeGeorge it stands out from other fandoms like Star Wars, which is also a good versus evil story, but its socio-political machinations are more obscured, especially in the original trilogy. When George Lucas tried to explore this in the prequels it, to DeGeorge, "failed spectacularly" for many reasons.

"I think in Harry Potter all of that stuff is there and it's important to the story. It changes the way Harry and his friends behave. It changes their strategies when they realize that the Ministry is compromised and they cannot depend on the Ministry of Magic to protect them anymore," he said. "It has real consequences within the story and it motivates the characters. It's a really rich story to pull from and props to J.K. Rowling for that."

Anelli believes across the bar for pop culture, many fans of a property hold dear the ideals of that property and she sees Potter more than probably any other series as "an extended plea for tolerance, as J.K. Rowling put it."

"It is 100 percent about creating equality and tolerance in the world and that resonates deeply with most Harry Potter fans. Some Harry Potter fans just like magic and that's fine, but I think what happens is that you really do see the important character traits in a Harry Potter hero are a lot of what you see valued by its fanbase," she explained. "You get it a lot with other fandoms, with The Hunger Games, with a lot of the Marvel and the DC universes, but it's just so strong in Harry Potter. It's such a strong thread that runs through the whole thing and people start on it very young so they connect with it very deeply and that's why I think Harry Potter has that kind of power. The younger you hold a series or a property really dear to you the more power it's going to have I think as you grow up."

That power shows no signs of ending anytime soon and neither do the efforts of the HPA to harness it to do good in the world. Anelli sees the most important thing for them to do in the future is keep working to make their tagline about turning fans into heroes come true.

"We will be and should be the people that provide you with how to turn your activism and the things that you feel could be better in the world as experienced through pop culture [a reality.] We should be the people to tell you how to do it. We're hopefully going to be doing that more concretely," she said.

With the HPA's resources and so many coming together to make a difference, the barrier to impacting the world in the way our fictional heroes have done in theirs seems smaller than ever and perhaps just depends on the choice presented in that Dumbledore quote highlighted by DeGeorge that each person has to make. Clearly though for any fans deciding to do what is right over what is easy, the Harry Potter Alliance will be there as an option.