As a comedian, writer, and producer, Andrew Slack’s goal was making people laugh. Since co-founding the Harry Potter Alliance in 2005, he’s been more interested in making them think—and more, importantly, to act. Inspired by parallels between the Harry Potter books and our world, Slack has turned young fans of the fantasy series into fan-activists, building an online Dumbledore’s Army that’s stood up against genocide and for marriage equality, sent relief planes to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, and helped build libraries in underfunded schools. Now, with a staff of 70 volunteers, almost 100 offline chapters, and new campaigns built around the Hunger Games movies, Slack is broadening the fan-activist platform—and thinking about new ways to use the power of storytelling to effect social change. Here, he explains how getting laughs—and getting laughed at—was good preparation for heading a ridiculous-sounding organization with a completely earnest mission.
FAST COMPANY: How did you go from comedy and writing to creating an online activist network for Harry Potter fans?
ANDREW SLACK: I’ve been acting, writing, and storytelling all my life. In college at Brandeis, some friends and I started a sketch comedy group called the Late Night Players, which became a hit on campus. After graduation, we continued doing that professionally, and I also worked various day jobs around Cambridge. It was at one of my day jobs teaching kids that my students introduced me to the story of Harry Potter. I picked up the first book skeptically, but as I read that first chapter, something shot through me and I said out loud, "This book just changed my life."
Since college I had been thinking about the power of stories to transform individuals and, collectively, to inspire social change. I wanted to be the instigator of a movement that had multilevel storytelling—personal, collective, and mythological—at its core. But I didn’t have a story to work with until I found Harry Potter. After traveling the country in fall 2004 trying to get kids to vote, I got a job at a startup in D.C. and I started blogging about Harry Potter. I began drawing parallels between Harry Potter and our world, and thinking about what would become the Harry Potter Alliance. In 2005, I met the band Harry and the Potters, and they loved my idea and helped me connect with the online Harry Potter community. With Paul DeGeorge from the band, and my comedy colleague Seth Soulstein, I co-founded the Harry Potter Alliance that year. By 2007, the organization was able to pay me, and J.K. Rowling was praising us in Time magazine.
What was so striking about the first Harry Potter book? Was there something about the series that made it particular suited to mobilizing real-world activism?
The first sentence of the first book is at least tied for most subversive sentence in the history of literature: "Mr. and Mrs. Durstley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." That’s when I started laughing. To be subversive against the concept of aspiring for normalcy is about as subversive as it gets. The fact that J.K. Rowling used to work for Amnesty International was also apparent in the books. There are a lot of parallels to our world. We see discrimination against so-called "mudbloods," a derogatory term for wizards that don’t have "pure blood." During a time of terrorism, Harry’s godfather is falsely imprisoned and tortured—a clear parallel to Guantanamo and the ways governments act under panic. In the later books, we see Harry and his friends form Dumbledore’s Army, a student activist group that fights for justice in a world that is ignoring a real threat: the return of the villain, Lord Voldemort. I thought, why couldn’t the Harry Potter community become Dumbledore’s Army? I wanted there to be a message to this movement that fantasy is not an escape from our world, but an invitation to go deeper into it.
What kind of causes and groups have you chosen to support?
The first thing we said was that denying global warming, or denying the genocide in Darfur or in the Congo, was very similar to denying that Voldemort has returned. We needed to find the organizations doing the most effective on-the-ground advocacy as possible and to support them as heroes in this world. We’re working with United to End Genocide and their student division STAND. After the earthquakes in Haiti, the HPA raised over $123,000 in two weeks for Partners in Health, which let us send five planes full of medical supplies, named after characters from the Harry Potter universe. We’ve developed really tight relationships with the Gay-Straight Alliance, and did a big marriage equality campaign in Maine in 2009, with a live-streamed wizard-rock concert, door-to-door canvassing, and phone banking. While we lost that year, we won over many hearts and minds. We’ll be heading back to Maine to win this year, and to other states with marriage equality on the ballot. In the past year, we’ve also asked people to donate used books they love, which has helped build libraries at a charter school in Brooklyn, at community centers in the Mississippi Delta, and in a village for orphans in Rwanda, where we sent over 4,000 books.
You’ve moved beyond the Harry Potter universe, too. What other stories does your fan-activist base gravitate toward?
They are migrating into the Hunger Games trilogy, Doctor Who, the author John Green’s books and the online community called Nerdfighters that he started with his brother Hank, anything by Joss Whedon, and anything with Neil Patrick Harris in it. We’re now creating a larger organization that’s beginning as projects of the Harry Potter Alliance, called Imagine Better. Imagine Better's first campaign was around the Hunger Games movie.
Tell me about that campaign.
The Hunger Is Not A Game campaign centered around comparing the institutions of hunger and poverty to the oppressive regime of the Capitol in the books. We teamed up with Oxfam America to promote Oxfam's GROW Campaign, which targets the root causes of poverty. We teamed up with a slew of Hunger Games fan sites, and as the movie came closer to debut we got mentioned in a New York Times blog post. On the night of the film's release, Lionsgate tried to shut down the campaign. There was an article about that on ThinkProgress, which started a backlash against Lionsgate. Change.org helped us launch a petition to get Lionsgate to rescind, and it was the fastest campaign that they had ever officially promoted and won. Lionsgate called me to apologize and they were so genuine that I hope we can work together on the next Hunger Games film, Catching Fire. Catching Fire is a more political book that really lends itself to mobilizing Internet-style. I’d like to create a campaign that’s all about memes and spreadable media, with targeted videos about land-grabbing, one of the institutional issues underlying hunger and poverty. Lionsgate and author Suzanne Collins take hunger very seriously, and we hope to work with them as fans of their work, to make a tangible dent against hunger in our world.
Was doing comedy good preparation for leading an army of young activists?
I’m not the only face of the organization anymore—and that’s been to the organization’s benefit. I dream big, and people who dream big have a hard time getting things done. So I surround myself with people more pragmatic people who push back at me constantly. Producing comedy videos in the early days of YouTube helped teach me how to make things go viral, which has been useful. I'm a bit rough around the edges for an executive director, but it applies well to the work I do. Professional etiquette is important, but I think that being someone who’s totally polished and not willing to get their hands dirty would not be conducive to conversing with young people. I act ridiculous and make absurd speeches—but it inspires people. This goes back to 8th grade, when in the midst of horrific bullying I ran for student council president. I’d been writing these raps on my own, and my mom convinced me that instead of reading the boring speech I’d written, I should do a rap. I thought, if they all laugh, they will remember you, and they’ll remember you had the guts to keep going. So I got up in front of everyone and started rapping, and they were all laughing at me, this skinny white kid in a really diverse school. But eventually they were laughing with me, and at the end they were cheering. I won, and I was class or student council president through 12th grade. I was known for doing crazy things but creating a positive environment—and I try to apply that in everything I do.
You devoted a lot of time and energy to comedy—does that still have a place in your life, or is leading the alliance all you need to be satisfied now?
When I stopped doing comedy full-time, I think I actually got funnier. I developed a one-man show, which I’m working on now in my rare spare time. I’ve also got some YouTube videos coming soon where I do an imitation of Barack Obama doing Disney songs. I am very satisfied being the grand wizard of the Harry Potter Alliance, though. There is nothing like working with young people who have so much courage, compassion, and creativity, and helping them grow into themselves and become more confident in their ability to empower others to make social change. But in looking at the life cycle of nonprofit, I thrive on innovation and some degree of chaos. I’m not a governance-type person. The Harry Potter Alliance is getting to that governance place, and when that happens the founder needs to get the hell out of the way or else the organization falls apart. The problem is, I’m not ready to go.
The notion of Imagine Better is one part of what I’ve been building to—providing a larger institutional support for artists and fans of artists to make social change happen. Another part is working with organizations to help the good guys tell better stories. A third part is education, where I’m partnering with the Smithsonian EdLab to develop a myth-based model for education that starts with books, TV shows, and movies kids are already interested in. One could argue I’m all over the place, but it’s actually coherent and building to a bigger thing. Have we perfected the model of using stories for social change? Definitely not. But we’ve come further than anyone else.
* This interview has been condensed and edited.
[Image: Flickr user John Catbagan]