Remember how the kids at Hogwarts assembled Dumbledore's Army to fight against the Dark Arts? Well, that's kind of happening in real life, too. Except this Dumbledore's Army is a registered nonprofit, a team of Harry Potter fans/missionaries that wants to eradicate poverty, illiteracy, and genocide. Seriously? "We are living in dark and difficult times, as Dumbledore says, and we have a choice between what is right and what is easy," says Andrew Slack, the founder of the real-life Dumbledore's Army, also known as the Harry Potter Alliance, which started in 2005 and counts more than 100,000 members across the globe. These Harry Potter-ites live by the motto "the weapon we have is love" (a.k.a., "Love is the most powerful form of magic," Slack says) and wear T shirts with the slogan WHAT WOULD DUMBLEDORE DO? Through blogs and YouTube videos, they've raised more than $15,000 in aid for Darfur and Burma and donated 14,000 books to children in need worldwide.
The Harry Potter books might have ended two years ago, but as the Harry Potter Alliance illustrates, its rabid fans aren't going anywhere—they even give the Trekkies a run for their Spock ears. On iTunes and MySpace, there are more than 300 bands who perform a genre of music called "wizard rock"—wrock for short—featuring songs about the books (band names include: Draco and the Malfoys, the Remus Lupins, etc). They hold conventions where members are sorted into Hogwarts houses (Gryffindor, Slytherin) just like in the books. The two popular Harry Potter podcasts, PotterCast and MuggleCast, have turned their hosts into household names in the fan world. But the Harry Potter Alliance is peculiar to the world of fandom, because these people actually think they can use Harry Potter to make a difference in the world.
The Harry Potter Alliance's philosophy seeks to extract values from the Potter books (SPOILER ALERT! Good always triumphs over evil. Sorry, Lord Voldemort) and use that as a starting-off point for philanthropy. Slack says he tries to get Potter fans to understand the need for activism by making analogies between the book's plots and current events: wizard newspapers ignore the return of Lord Voldemort, while our media does not give due attention to the genocide in Darfur. Harry's teacher, Remus Lupin, faces social persecution because he is a werewolf, while people in our world are discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation. The Dumbledore doctrine even supports gay marriage, and not just because Dumbledore was gay. "Equal marriage is both moral and essential," says the manifesto, which is posted on the site TheHPAlliance.org.
Members of the Harry Potter Alliance, like most Harry Potter fans, share a youthful starry-eyed idealism bordering on childish naiveté. Slack, 29, might as well be the poster child. He speaks quickly, doesn't take a breath between sentences and used to work as a comedy actor. But he sounds more like Dr. Phil than Will Ferrell. "Out of the fire and out of the ashes comes the new world," Slack says, explaining how Dumbledore's pet phoenix can inspire people toward philanthropy. "We can see this as a rebirthing process for our whole way of being."
Slack got the idea to start the alliance when he read the books as a volunteer theater teacher for inner-city kids. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brandeis University, he also studied peacemaking in Northern Ireland. When the sixth Harry Potter book was released in 2005, he realized he needed an "in" with the Harry Potter fan community to help spread the word. He found his insider connection in Paul DeGeorge, who, together with his brother Joe, fronts Harry and the Potters, the most famous wizard rock band.
"We were just about to go on stage at a concert in this high-school gym," DeGeorge recalls, "and Andrew came up to us and was talking really fast. He had just run there so he was kind of sweaty. So there was this crazy, sweaty guy talking to me about this idea he had for an activist organization based around Harry Potter."
The rest was Potter history. DeGeorge and Slack still run the operation together, and Harry and the Potters still donate part of their music proceeds to the HP Alliance. But lately, the wrock side of the enterprise has been suffering. With no new books to supply material for lyrics, and no more book-release bonanzas to attract audiences, Harry and the Potters have scaled back operations, from 100-some concerts annually in 2007 to just 15 or 20 in the past year. The Harry Potter podcasts have also been scaled back—they aren't weekly anymore, and they mostly focus on Harry Potter movie news.
Once the movies for the seventh and final book (the book has been separated into two films) is released in 2010, where will all the Harry Potter fans go for comfort? The Harry Potter Alliance might be their best refuge. "It's a way to continue to live the Harry Potter dream," explains Robert Thompson, a pop-culture historian at Syracuse University. Thompson—who says the HP Alliance is the first fandom-based philanthropic organization he's heard of in any fan community—speculates that many Potter fans are probably shifting their attention toward philanthropy since book discussion is no longer an option.
Thompson added that part of the appeal of the Harry Potter Alliance might lie in its similarity to role-playing games. "If we really want to be Harry Potter, we can't all go out and find a basilisk to slay," he explained. "But if you're thinking of ways you can be a Harry Potter-esque hero in the real world, one of the things that suggests itself is philanthropy. We can defeat metaphoric Voldemorts that way."
The Alliance will even take their fight to the movies. At screenings of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince this weekend, members plan to stand in ticket lines and recruit new members. They'll hand out stickers that say DUMBLEDORE TAUGHT ME … and you can fill in the blank yourself. (One possible answer: "Don't go searching for lockets in caves.") If you think this sounds borderline ridiculous, Slack himself would agree with you. "Of course the Harry Potter Alliance is silly," he says. "But that's one of the reasons why it's so effective. Look at Harry. When he's not fighting Voldemort, he's playing Quidditch or Exploding Snap." Slack and his followers might not be able to levitate their broomsticks, but that won't stop them from spreading their own brand of magic.