With her oversized glasses and geek-girl enthusiasm, Lauren Bird, 22, a recent New York University grad, epitomizes a certain corner of online culture. Once a week, on a YouTube channel run by the Harry Potter Alliance, she posts a webcam video from her bedroom in Astoria, talking in a rapid-fire, fangirl way, using her love for Potterdom to change the actual world.
The future of civic engagement might wind up looking like this: A blend of fact and fiction, channeled toward a cause. If so, its model is the Somerville-based alliance, which connects the feverish online world of “fandom” to what’s known, in Internet jargon, as “IRL” — In Real Life.
The alliance was launched in 2005 by Andrew Slack, then a recent Brandeis graduate and aspiring comic who had discovered, in a series of post-collegiate jobs — at a summer camp in Winchester, a Boys and Girls Club in Cambridge — that the Harry Potter books, filled with themes of social justice, spoke strongly to kids from all backgrounds. The books had already inspired an online world of young, engaged, creative fans, who developed fan fiction and videos and met up IRL for “Wizard Rock” concerts and Quidditch competitions.
Slack’s brainchild was to channel that enthusiasm into activism, to appeal to kids who weren’t into politics.
“A lot of these kids are finding no access point to engage and no one willing to speak their language,” Slack told me. “I put everything into the framework of Harry Potter.” His first post declared that the world needed a real “Dumbledore’s Army” — like the student-led movement in the books — to alert the world to intractable problems.
Slack first worked to raise awareness of climate change and genocide in Darfur. Over time, the alliance branched out, raising money to send underprivileged kids to camp and donating books in New York, Mississippi, and Rwanda. A 2010 campaign for Haiti earthquake relief, in conjunction with Partners in Health, raised $123,000, enough to fill five airplanes with supplies.
The alliance has also registered more than 1,000 young voters at “Wizard Rock the Vote” events, and taken part in phone banks for ballot questions: This month, members made 3,000 calls on behalf of marriage equality in Maine, and 900 calls for the DREAM Act in Maryland.
Slack is hardly the first person to use the power of the entertainment industry for good works. But pop culture charity is often top-down, or filled with one-time bursts of celebrity-driven energy. I came of age with “We Are the World.” “American Idol” used to raise millions with a telethon. MTV is using its “Jersey Shore” cast to raise money for Hurricane Sandy relief.
What makes the Harry Potter Alliance different is that it’s user-generated, since “fandom” isn’t about consumption as much as participation. A fan world is a particularly strong draw, Slack says, for kids who feel mildly ostracized in school but embraced by geek culture online. (Harry Potter Alliance leaders make frequent, reverent reference to a community called the Nerdfighters, led by young-adult author John Green and his brother Hank.)
So the culture is a part of the process: This year’s phone banks, for instance, were accompanied by live-streamed videos by big names from the Potter fan world, and linked to a “House Cup” competition that earned points for members’ favorite houses in Hogwarts.
As Slack grows older — he’s in his 30s now, oh my! — the organization is adding new, younger faces. Bird joined as a video blogger, along with Julian Gomez, a 19-year-old from Florida who gained national attention for one video, in which he announced that he’s undocumented.
Slack once worried that the interest in the alliance would wane when new Potter books and movies stopped coming out. But the ranks are still growing — fed, Bird suspects, by kids who grew up reading the Potter books and longing for the day they could join up online. And fans of other cultural phenomena, from “Glee” to “Doctor Who,” find affinity with the Potter universe: When the Hunger Games movies came out, the alliance worked with Oxfam on a “Hunger is Not a Game” campaign.
“I tend to think of the Harry Potter fandom as the Beatles of fandom,” Bird told me. Could the Harry Potter Alliance be the Woodstock of the Millennials?
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.