Katniss Everdeen didn’t just inspire a generation of girls to braid their hair; she taught them how to spot and fight oppressive systems.
Harry Potter didn’t just make kids believe in magic; he encouraged them to create their own.
The Avengers didn’t just make great action figures; they modeled what could happen when people work together to save the planet.
Of course, all of these stories and characters come with nuance and depth. And so do the fans who love them.
What is Fandom Forward?
Fandom Forward is an international nonprofit with a goal to “turn fans into heroes by using the power of story and popular culture to make activism accessible and sustainable.”
For 15 years, Fandom Forward was known as The Harry Potter Alliance. In 2021, thanks to J.K. Rowling’s fear-based transphobic messaging — and years of progress and activism leading to a much-needed change — the organization rebranded to Fandom Forward, to better include folks beyond a single story or fandom, and to be inclusive of the communities it serves.
Through experiential training and real-life campaigns, Fandom Forward develops compassionate, skillful leaders who learn to approach the world’s problems with joy, creativity, and a commitment to equity. The organization has had a major impact in countless areas, from LGBTQ+ equality, education and libraries, voting, and climate change, and they’re just getting started.
Fandom Forward is an excellent case study of the power of fandom and how ordinary people who love a movie, comic book, or series can become empowered activists who have critical conversations, create new solutions, and uplift one another in the fight for a better world.
How are people in fandoms doing good?
Katie Bowers, the managing director of Fandom Forward, has been involved with the organization in some capacity for her entire adult life, and has first-hand experience seeing how people with shared interests can come together for good.
“I think fan activism is a really good tool for seeing past a lot of propaganda and for working together with other people to imagine the kind of world we want and to work on putting that into action,” Bowers said.
“All these skills that you need to be a good organizer to be a civically-engaged human being — of understanding history, of being able to analyze people's motives and actions, of being able to be creative and imaginative and collaborative — people are learning it in fandom.”
With a variety of social justice projects under their belt, Fandom Forward has a lot to be proud of. Recent initiatives included a campaign to support Indigenous water protectors by hosting a viewing party, virtual action, and community building event in conjunction with an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
“It’s something that’s fun and educational for fans, but it also helps to breathe a little bit of joy into the work that folks do,” Bowers said. “Activism is wonderful, but it’s also very draining and demanding, so we get to do something that is impactful and fun and joyful. It’s cartoon night. We’re all going to watch cartoons for justice.”
Another recent campaign was a gay pirate panel (for lack of a better term) with “Our Flag Means Death” star Vico Ortiz and other digital activists, who raised funds and took action against anti-LGTBQ+ bills sweeping the United States.
Over 500 attendees signed up for the digital event, where they watched a YouTube livestream hosted by “Our Flag Means Death” YouTubers, podcasters, fan creators, and the pirate of the hour, Vico Ortiz.
Additionally, participants took direct actions to fight anti-LGBTQ+ bills, and once they shared their actions on social media, they were awarded with an “official job” on the Fandom Forward pirate crew.
Additionally, Fandom Forward has a long-standing initiative to promote education and literacy. Book Defenders (formerly called Accio Books) is a campaign that has donated over 400,000 books around the world, secured millions in library funding for libraries in the U.S. and Canada, and has even helped build libraries, according to the Fandom Forward website.
Literacy advocacy is deeply important to the organization, as its foundation is on a love of books and storytelling, Bowers said. Although banned books have always been cause for concern, the issue has become more prominent in recent months.
This grassroots work is vital to the safety and freedom of people around the country, and Bowers says that fan communities are best equipped to fight these injustices.
Why do fandoms work as a way to mobilize activists?
In a time where it feels like there are more villains to fight than ever before, Bowers says fandom is the perfect vehicle for training and empowering activists of all ages — and Fandom Forward isn’t the only organization offering such insights.
The Fan Organizer Coalition is a community of fan organizers created by Fandom Forward, Black Nerds Create, and Pop Culture Collaborative, helping to build stronger relationships among fan organizers, share resources, and work to build equity.
Just recently, the coalition released a report of findings about fan organizing, which explores shared values, best practices, and shifting narratives.
Bowers shared in conversation what has been repeatedly explored in research and practice: Safe communities give us the power, the resources, and the energy to do more good.
She says that being a fan of something is a shortcut to finding your people; to organizing your community. For example, if you love “Star Wars,” and you meet another person who loves “Star Wars,” chances are, you can have a fruitful conversation about your favorite movies and characters, but you’re also connecting in a completely different way, too.
“We share the same values,” Bowers says. “Like, you see the world the way I do. You have the same feelings about war and empire that I do. You have the same feelings about acceptance and love and friendship that I do. So, of course it’s going to make it easier to make friends. It makes it easier to do community organizing.”
Talking about big issues through the lens of a plot or character arc disarms people. It helps break down the barriers to activism as something a favorite superhero would do, as something someone you admire would help you do, too.
“We’re borrowing a little bit of bravery from those stories and from those characters to help people tackle this stuff,” Bowers says.
Part of the fan organizing report findings points readers back to the fact that fandoms are rooted in a desire for belonging, that humans long to find themselves represented in stories and in groups to make meaning out of this big mess we call life.
“We’ve always told stories to make sense of the world. We don’t tell stories in the same way our ancestors did, about animals or being in the woods, or how the Earth got made, but we tell these huge cultural myths that are shared on a much larger scale,” Bowers says.
“‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Hunger Games,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Star Trek,’ a million other things, are owned by corporations and are therefore worthy of a critical eye, but these are our shared stories right now. These are our shared cultural myths.”
Part of fan organizing, beyond raising funds, mobilizing voters, or reading banned books, is to create even better stories on this massive scale.
“Fan organizing is focused around specifically making franchises better, more diverse, more inclusive, more accurate,” Bowers says.
“That stuff matters. These are the stories we use to make sense of the world now, and if they’re not stories that are inclusive or accurate, then we’re making sense of the world with bad information.”
How fandoms teach us about inclusive community building
Fandom Forward has always been a safe and inclusive place for people of all identities. Still, when LGBTQ+ folks (especially transgender community members) were targeted by J.K. Rowling’s transphobic remarks, the organization knew it was time to refresh.
Bowers said over 1,000 members were included in the decision-making process during the organization’s rebrand, ensuring that folks of different marginalized groups and identities felt heard and could voice their ideas in creating a space where everyone could be authentically enthusiastic about the things they love.
“Fan spaces are not just free-for-alls,” Bowers says. “Whatever the political leanings of the space, there are going to be norms and language, and expected rules and behaviors people are very conscious about when cultivating that space. People are constantly having these community building discussions that are rooted in justice, and I think there’s a lot of thoughtful, intentional community building going on in fandom in a way that could be useful in other spaces in the real world.”
Fandom Forward, for instance, maintains that transphobia and racism are not welcome in spaces. Its values are rooted in joyful activism, the power of community, the development of practice, support, and love.
Clarifying norms and values are regular tasks, as members work to fine-tune their community building, to work through transgressions, and offer learning opportunities as they navigate both digital and traditional spaces, like Discord servers, convention halls, and Facebook groups.
Though it might seem like small potatoes, community building is a key part of mobilizing fan communities to help aboard and welcome new activists who are ready to reimagine a better world.
“And fan activism is a cool pushback to all of that because so much of fandom is about reimagining stories and saying: ‘What if the story was told this way?’ What if the character was like this?’ Fans constantly rework things and re-tell these stories. We know that there are so many valuable, important, valid ways to be a human being, to have your story told.”
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