STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
NEDA ULABY: 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.
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ANDREW SLACK: 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: Unidentified Woman: Expelliarmus.
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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.
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.
SLACK: Including 4,000 for a youth village in Rwanda and over 20,000 for community centers across the Mississippi Delta.
ULABY: Kate Looby was at that party in Boston. She says her whole life used to revolve around Harry Potter.
KATE LOOBY: There was a period where I could have recited the entire first book, like word for word for the first few chapters.
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ULABY: Looby was not interested in other stories, like real life ones taking place in the Congo or Darfur.
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.
LOOBY: I would say now, I consider myself to be a full-fledged activist.
HENRY JENKINS: This is a powerful new model for getting young people involved in the political process.
ULABY: Scholar Henry Jenkins calls it Avatar Activism...
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ULABY: ...that comes from Youtube videos of Palestinians protesting in the occupied territories. They're dressed like the blue aliens in the movie "Avatar."
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JENKINS: The newer activism may be informed by newer stories, stories that matter deeply to the people who listen to them.
ULABY: 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.
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.
SLACK: 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.
SLACK: We're creating a space that's imaginative and playful and fun, as well as working on serious issues.
ULABY: Unidentified Woman: Oh my, God.
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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.
SLACK: Harry and the Potters (Rock Band): (Singing) The weapon we have is love.
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ULABY: Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.