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Harry Potter: Boy Wizard ... And Real-World Activist?

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Harry Potter: Boy Wizard ... And Real-World Activist?

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Harry Potter: Boy Wizard ... And Real-World Activist?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, as all those sequels demonstrate, the dedication of Harry Potter fans is epic, and it's made some activists wonder if they can take that fan enthusiasm and channel it into politics.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: Thirty-one-year-old Andrew Slack used to be just an ordinary muggle, one who gave a lot of thought to parallels he saw between the social problems in Harry Potter novels and in the real world: exploitation of workers, prison abuse, media consolidation.

Slack started the Harry Potter Alliance to transform fellow fans into activists. Recently, the Harry Potter Alliance threw itself a five-year anniversary party in Boston, drawing hundreds of mostly young people.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ANDREW SLACK (Director, Harry Potter Alliance): Wizards and witches, boys and girls, there are so many of us out there who love Harry Potter and want to do more for our world.

ULABY: Slack calls this group a real life Dumbledore's Army; the fictional group of young magicians committed to fighting evil by learning practical spells.

(Soundbite of movie, "Harry Potter")

Unidentified Man: Stupefy, expelliarmus.

Unidentified Woman: Expelliarmus.

ULABY: In the books, Dumbledore's army takes stands against repression, torture, genocide. The Harry Potter Alliance picks its causes, says Andrew Slack, by teasing out the books' politics.

Mr. SLACK: We're sort of like Harry Potter rabbis or something.

ULABY: Ones with a progressive bent. Fan communities may seem marginal from the outside, but they're technologically sophisticated and highly effective global networks. This group's 100,000-worldwide membership has raised enough money to donate thousands of books.

Mr. SLACK: Including 4,000 for a youth village in Rwanda and over 20,000 for community centers across the Mississippi Delta.

ULABY: And they sent five cargo planes of medical supplies to Haiti after the earthquake.

Kate Looby was at that party in Boston. She says her whole life used to revolve around Harry Potter.

Ms. KATE LOOBY (Operations Director, Harry Potter Alliance): There was a period where I could have recited the entire first book, like word for word for the first few chapters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Looby was not interested in other stories, like real life ones taking place in the Congo or Darfur.

Ms. LOOBY: I was very apathetic about things.

ULABY: She ran across the Harry Potter Alliance on fan Web pages and was moved by the notion she could help make a difference. Now she's the group's operations director.

Ms. LOOBY: I would say now, I consider myself to be a full-fledged activist.

Professor HENRY JENKINS (Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Art, University of Southern California): This is a powerful new model for getting young people involved in the political process.

ULABY: Scholar Henry Jenkins calls it Avatar Activism...

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: ...that comes from Youtube videos of Palestinians protesting in the occupied territories. They're dressed like the blue aliens in the movie "Avatar."

(Soundbite of chanting protesters)

Prof. JENKINS: The newer activism may be informed by newer stories, stories that matter deeply to the people who listen to them.

ULABY: Stories like "Avatar" and the Harry Potter series might seem unlikely starting points towards civic engagement, but they stir something in people.

The McArthur Foundation is funding a study of the Harry Potter Alliance and other groups that use pop culture to get hardcore fans as passionate about politics.

Prof. JENKINS: It sparks and inspires them to challenge the world.

ULABY: That impulse comes naturally to fans, says Andrew Slack of the Harry Potter Alliance.

Mr. SLACK: When you hear about Darfur, you think, well, that's a different world - I can't affect that world. But when you go to a Harry Potter fan site or a Harry Potter convention, all that stuff, you're dealing with people that have already gone to a different world and experienced the life of the other character.

Now all they need to do is get that little shift to say, you know, wouldn't it be fun if we really took that seriously and we brought it back to our world.

ULABY: More conventional progressive activism can feel a little stultifying, says Slack. At this moment, working for Darfur or net neutrality can come across as dreary, intimidating - even off putting.

Mr. SLACK: We're creating a space that's imaginative and playful and fun, as well as working on serious issues.

ULABY: That's where a band called Harry and the Potters makes a huge difference. It's really popular, at least among a certain set.

Unidentified Woman: Oh my, God.

(Soundbite of cheering)

ULABY: And it helps the Harry Potter Alliance recruit at the sort of high schools and colleges, where no one shows up at Amnesty International meetings.

Mr. SLACK: Being at a Harry and the Potters concert is one of like the coolest experiences. The level of the adrenaline that goes on in the room, with all of these like 17-year-old kids chanting together, hundreds of them. The weapon we have is love.

(Soundbite of singing and cheering)

Harry and the Potters (Rock Band): (Singing) The weapon we have is love.

ULABY: Harry Potter, it's been said, taught a generation to love to read. Now Harry Potter is teaching them to be activists, too.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

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