20 years later, how 'Harry Potter' has become the 'playbook' for a generation of young activists

Will Lerner
Producer, Yahoo Entertainment

In 1999, a mother named Elizabeth Mounce spoke before the South Carolina State Board of Education. She had some thoughts about a book series that, a year prior, had made its American debut, Harry Potter. Mounce told the board that author J.K. Rowling’s works had “a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect, and sheer evil.” Mounce was one of several critics around the country demanding the removal of Harry Potter novels from the classroom. They insisted the books would have a major impact on their children.


Harry Potter books have helped kids stand up for their rights and taught them how to do it. (GIF: Yahoo Entertainment; Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros)

When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone arrived in the United States on Sept. 1, 1998, Rowling’s saga about an orphaned boy wizard became an immediate phenomenon — and remains firmly entrenched in the zeitgeist. Sorcerer’s Stone and the books that followed empowered a generation of young fans with the message that a good heart armored with love, friendship, and acceptance can overcome tyranny, bigotry, and hate. The kids who consumed the books so eagerly? Those initial readers have reached adulthood, and they haven’t forgotten the moral of the story.

Just look at big protests and rallies like the Women’s March and March for Our Lives filled with signs informed by Harry Potter‘s powerful themes.

As Charlotte Alter, a national correspondent for Time who covered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student protests, noted on Twitter:

That’s not where it ends, though. Many Potterheads, like Katie Bowers, decided to follow the Boy Who Lived’s example. Bowers is the campaigns director for the Harry Potter Alliance.

“I was 12 years old when I started reading Harry Potter,” Bowers told Yahoo Entertainment. “The stories I read had a huge impact on my life. The Harry Potter books encouraged me to be imaginative and creative, and it made it very easy to meet new people because you always kind of knew, ‘Well, we have Harry Potter in common.’ … Harry Potter not only helped me make friends and be creative and imaginative growing up, but it also shaped my career in no small way.

“The Harry Potter Alliance is Dumbledore’s army for the real world,” Bowers continued. “We take lessons we have learned in the stories, and we apply them to real-world problems people are facing. We have worked on everything from literacy and donating books to people in need. … We have worked on LGBTQ equality, marriage equality, transgender rights, we’ve done work for girls access to education. … We’ve done tons of voters registration and get-out-the-vote work. We have over 200 chapters who are active in 30 countries around the world. … It’s open to all ages. Our youngest chapters are in elementary schools, but we have high school, middle school, college, and community chapters.”

Bowers agrees with what Alter wrote on Twitter about Harry Potter becoming a playbook of sorts on how to deal with the current political climate.

“When we were reading Harry Potter as kids, it was just this fantastic story of magic and heroes,” Bowers says. “As time has marched on with the Harry Potter series, we have really gotten to reflect on how much the books were kind of advocating ‘Here is what you do when fascism rises to power.’”

There’s more than just anecdotal evidence that Harry Potter is shaping young minds. A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology concluded that people who read the books wind up having “improved attitudes” toward stigmatized groups like refugees or the LGBTQ community.

A baked-in desire to stand up for the marginalized in the face of powerful forces has put young people on a collision course with a president who has been routinely accused of being racist and a government that continues to face fierce criticism over how it’s addressed the gun violence epidemic.

Of course, the lessons of Harry Potter didn’t magically appear. They were written by Rowling, an outspoken advocate for social justice (who has emerged as a vocal and persistent critic of President Trump). In 2008, Rowling took her message to young Americans directly in a commencement speech at Harvard University.

The author told the assembled crowd:

“Your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden. … We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

Earlier this year, the Harry Potter series sold its 500 millionth copy. In fact, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was one of the top 100 books sold in 2017. There is something magical in realizing that two decades after emigrating to the U.S., Potter power shows no sign of abating.

Check out our entire Harry Potter and the 20th Anniversary series.

Watch: The person who just might be the world’s most obsessed Harry Potter fan:

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