Interview: Harry Potter Alliance Turns Fans Into Heroes

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Do you believe in magic? It's safe to say that every member of The Harry Potter Alliance does.

(Interview below)

Instead of using magic wands and spells, however, this international group believes that magic resides within every individual, and that this "magic" is power. This residual power can be used by communities to change the world for the better.

According to its official website, The Harry Potter Alliance is a nonprofit organization that aims to turn fans into heroes. The group uses the power of story, specifically from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, to encourage fans to work together and make real world change.

EmptyLighthouse had the opportunity to speak with Lauren Bird, communications director at the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA). Bird, naturally, is a Harry Potter fan, and said that Prisoner of Azkaban is her favorite book and movie of the series.

"It's the only one that comes even close to J.K. Rowling's tone and sense of humor," she said. She also added that Sirius is her favorite character in the series.

"I like his personality," she said. "He is funny and charismatic despite his hard life.

He had a horrific childhood, had great years at Hogwarts, but then went to prison and then died.

He wasn't a great father figure to Harry, but he was one and it was nice to know that he was always there for him."

Bird said that the Harry Potter Alliance was founded in 2005 by Andrew Slack, who was a touring comedian at the time. He still works as the Cofounder and Movement Director of the organization.

"He had an interest in activism, and soon discovered that kids weren't excited about social injustice," she said.

"He started reading Harry Potter one day and found that the books are full of discriminatory issues and rooting for the underdog. He saw so many opportunities to encourage a passionate fan community to advocate for real world issues."

The Harry Potter Alliance has over 275 chapters in 25 countries and 43 U.S. States, according to its website. Over the past ten years, the organization has reached heights in advocating for some of the world's most important issues.

"We tend to think of ourselves as an activism 101," said Bird. "Most of our members wouldn't necessarily identify themselves as activists, more so just Harry Potter fans who wanted to join a group and become community leaders."

Bird said that chapters get as much autonomy as they want.

"They get to do so much cool stuff," she said. "We host contests for chapters and give them opportunities to come up with their own campaigns.

They get to serve in their communities as leaders and work on issues that the national organization hasn't been able to do before like animal rights and work with other fandoms. We're not just Harry Potter-based."

Bird said that the organization still hasn't done a Doctor Who campaign, but the HPA recently used The Hunger Games as a cultural messaging link to economic inequality through its Odds in our Favor campaign.

The HPA has a long list when it comes to their successes. In 2007, the group produced a podcast about Darfur that was downloaded over 120,000 times and raised thousands of dollars to protect thousands of civilians in Darfur and Burma. The organization has also partnered with Public Knowledge and brought over 20,000 fans and online video creators together to advocate for net neutrality.

Bird said members have also worked to pass marriage equality initiatives in several states through phone-banking and on-the-ground canvassing.

"We do a lot of different things," said Bird. "It's all based on our methods of fan activism and using the power of story to make real world change."

EmptyLighthouse also had the chance to get the full story behind the HPA's recent success on persuading Warner Bros. to use fair trade chocolate for all of their licensed Harry Potter treats.

Bird said the campaign began in 2010 when a member of a chapter heard child slavery rumors and corruption on the Ivory Coast.

"It's been a long journey for us," she said.

Bird said the HPA never wanted to go against Warner Bros., and all they wanted was to do a partnership with them and learn what their cocoa was like.

"We conducted a report on their chocolate, and found that they received an 'F' in ethical sourcing," she said.

"We passed the information to Warner Bros and they said they did their own report and they passed. They wouldn't show us their report."

That's when the HPA started the campaign: Show Us the Report. In 2013, they partnered with an anti-slavery organization, Walk Free, and eventually gathered 400,000 signatures on a petition.

Bird said the organizations wrote letters to Warner Bros., created videos, and even started creating their own fair trade chocolate frogs.

"I actually miss that we don't make them anymore," Bird said, adding that they stopped selling the product in December.

"They were through fair trade, and available in milk and dark chocolate. We had one of our artists even make trading cards."

Throughout the campaign, Bird said the HPA had been keeping in touch with J.K. Rowling "to make sure things were cool with her and they weren't being antagonistic."

"As fans, we want to be the best we can be," she said.

This past summer, Bird said Rowling sent the HPA an update saying, "this isn't cool."

"Her people set up a meeting with our representatives and Warner. Bros at their headquarters," she said. "Then we got a letter by Warner Bros. saying that by the end of 2015 all Harry Potter licensed chocolate will be fair trade."

The Harry Potter Alliance and their efforts don't stop there. In March 2015, Bird said the HPA will launch a fundraiser for its annual literacy campaign, Accio Books.

According to its site, in the past, members of the HPA have donated 200,000 books and helped build libraries at The Agahazoo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, community centers in the Mississippi Delta, the Bedford-Stuyvesant New Beginnings Charter School in New York City, and the Brightmoor Community Center in Detroit, Michigan.

"Last year we collected about 50,000 books and 10,000 went to the community center in Detroit," Bird said.

"If we can get enough funding we can do a lot of really cool things on a much larger scale than we've ever done for our Accio Books campaign."

Bird encourages anyone who is interested in joining the Harry Potter Alliance to search for a chapter near them. If there isn't a chapter near you, you can create your own and start "making a difference now."