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Would Harry Potter Fight for Immigration Reform?

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, August 6 2012

Dumbledore's Army in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Warner Brothers)

July 31 is an important day for Harry Potter fans. It's Harry's birthday, which he shares with his creator, author J.K. Rowling.

And so it's no accident that when Harry Potter fan Julian Gomez, 19, was looking to make a serious Potter-related announcement, that's the day he chose to do it.

Gomez is a video blogger and social media team member of the Harry Potter Alliance, a political action group built on top of the Harry Potter fan culture. That's about as much as the Internet knew about him until July 31, when he announced that as an undocumented immigrant, he can't make the journey from Florida to Chicago to attend a popular Potter convention, LeakyCon.

Harry Potter Alliance organizer Andrew Slack is working from the idea that fans with shared interests can be as politically active as church groups or unions. Here's a test of that idea, relating an issue that's very much a focus in this election year — immigration — to a group of potential voters that might not otherwise get involved in politics.

In the video "Why I can't go to LeakyCon," Gomez explains how he was born in Argentina and moved to Miami as a child. Now, after graduating summa cum laude from high school, he is a sophomore in the honors program at Miami Dade College. But because of his undocumented status, he can't take out student loans or get the kind of identification he'd need to fly to Chicago to attend the conference.

True to the interest-group-targeting form of the video, Gomez frames the issue in terms familiar to Potter fans: How villainous wizard Voldemort would treat the franchise's unmagical Muggles.

"If Voldemort had his way, those wizards born to Muggle parents would be stripped of their rights to work, education and the practice of magic of course. Harry Potter would support immigration reform," Gomez says. "I define American as a seeker of freedom, an advocate for justice and one who contributes his talents and hard work to America. Harry Potter would agree that I am an American."

The video, following in the Define American campaign launched by Jose Antonio Vargas, also marks a bid for a higher political profile by the Harry Potter Alliance, a group founded with the vision of marrying the themes in the Harry Potter books and other fandom communities with calls to action. The video will tie into a broader range of equality-related issues planned around the election, according to Slack, who is executive director of the group.

During a recent Personal Democracy Plus Call, Slack spoke about how the group's mission has evolved and is developing plans for the future.

Potter and his friends, of course, stand up for the little guy and question authority — leading Slack to float the idea of Hogwarts-themed activism among fans after discovering Rowling's signature book series in 2002.

"If Harry Potter were in our world," Slack wrote in one blog post, "wouldn't he do more than just talk about Harry Potter?"

The Harry Potter Alliance has, for example, sent five cargo planes, named after Harry Potter characters, to Haiti with supplies. It's also helping to build libraries around the world. Currently, the HPA is lobbying Warner Brothers to make Harry Potter chocolate fair trade.

"We're reinventing the way activism can be done," Slack said. "It doesn't have to be all totally serious."

The Harry Potter Alliance now has 70 volunteers, 100 chapters and three full-time staff, including Slack. Concert performances and conferences raise money for the non-profit, and HPA has also won the Chase Community Giving Challenge. The group's active board, which considers itself "non-partisan but unapologetically progressive," shapes the direction of the group's efforts.

"The politics of fandom is a fascinating thing," Slack said during the Personal Democracy Plus call. "It's just like politics, except it's more metaphors."

And it extends beyond the Harry Potter fan universe.

Working with Oxfam, HPA this March launched the Hunger is not a Game campaign — pegged to the release of the film adaptation of "The Hunger Games" — to benefit Oxfam's Grow initiative to help combat starvation. That effort developed a higher-than-expected profile when the Hunger Games studio Lionsgate threatened legal action against the group. The news about the potential legal action sparked an almost instantaneous petition, which quickly accrued signatures. The studio withdrew its threat after not much longer than 24 hours.

"By the end of the whole thing," Slack said, "Judd Apatow was tweeting about it, all these people all over the world were talking about fan activism who had never heard of fan activism. "

Fan-powered activism works, Slack suggests, thanks to the power of narrative.

"The best stories are the ones that resonate with the algorithm of the journey of the hero," he said.

It's a reasonable thing to say given that President Barack Obama suggested in a recent interview that he should have done a better job as "storyteller-in-chief." And the effect seems to be working for Julian Gomez. His video has been viewed over 13,000 times since Tuesday, and it's gotten some play on Twitter with the help of Vargas and the hashtag #MugglebornAmerican.

At the end of last week, the video also got the attention of Upworthy, which shares and reshares progressive content on the web. The video also coincides with an ongoing No Papers, No Fear bus ride by undocumented immigrants who are crossing the country and plan to reach the Democratic National Convention at the end of this month. On Friday, the Obama administration announced the process through which some young undocumented immigrants may be able to obtain work permits.

Global warming may be the next target for Slack and HPA. He said that he's working with a friend on creating an animated series of videos featuring a villain who speaks to viewers while stroking the decapitated head of a polar bear.

"He's basically telling you that he's going to drown your grandchildren," Slack explained, "and it's not a matter of if he wins, but when, and so you may as well join him."