SHE Fellow Aiesha D. Little recently talked to Janae Phillips, the director of Leadership and Education at the Harry Potter Alliance, where she leads training and programming. She spoke to Little about the Granger Leadership Academy, which will be held July 17-19.
Little: Tell us about yourself.
Phillips: My background is in both community organizing and educational technology, so doing more digital events has been an interesting opportunity to bring all of that together in new ways. I live in Tucson, Arizona, and outside of HPA, I’m a writer and amateur potter (the clay kind, not the wizard kind).
Little: What is the purpose of the Granger Leadership Academy?
Phillips: GLA is the world’s only fan activist conference! It’s like a Camp Half-Blood or Hogwarts or Rebel Base or all of those things rolled into one for the heroes of our own world. At GLA, you get to nerd out about the fandoms you love and learn leadership and activism skills all at the same event. We like to say that the stories we love bring us together, but the story of our world is up to us.
Little: Who came up with the idea for the GLA and why?
Phillips: GLA was first designed by an HPA volunteer as a conference for our chapters program, but it became clear after just one event that there was a huge hunger for this kind of experience from more than just our chapters. With this in mind, when I took over the second year the event was expanded to something open to anyone who wanted to be a part of it, and that’s what the event has continued to be ever since. Beyond an opportunity for fan activists to connect, GLA is really intentionally open to all knowledge levels — you could come as someone who’s never really done activism before or you could come as a seasoned community organizer, and there will be something for you. If you’re not part of a leadership or activism organization already, no matter your age, it can be a challenge to get access to events like these. That’s exactly the gap that GLA wants to fill.
Little: Who is your target audience for GLA?
Phillips: GLA is an all ages event for anyone who wants to use their love of stories to make the world a better place. We’ve had attendees as young as 8 and into their 60s, and all of those folks come together in one space to learn and connect. It’s really a testament to the power of fandom to bring folks of many different experiences together.
Little: What role does pop culture play in making the world better?
Phillips: A big question that I can’t possibly fully answer here, but I think the stories we tell and, even more importantly, the way we retell those stories through fandom help shape our world. What we’ve seen at the Harry Potter Alliance in nearly 15 years of organizing is that connecting real world social change to stories that have impacted people’s lives has incredible capacity for mobilizing folks for good. Stories are a connective tissue, a shared language that fans can use to verbalize ideas that they might not have the words for otherwise, and that’s a powerful thing when we’re working to deconstruct systems of oppression.
Little: I can’t really conduct an interview like this without asking about how the organization feels about J.K. Rowling’s comments about the trans community. How does one separate the art from its creator when it comes to controversies like these?
Phillips: The Harry Potter Alliance has been a trans inclusive and trans affirming organization for many years, from our 2016 Protego campaign to our consistent trans-affirming policies throughout our programs, and we have a very clear stance: trans women are women, trans men are men, non-binary people are non-binary, and affirming and respecting people’s gender is kind, loving, and literally saves lives.
I think that particularly for modern fans, it’s important to recognize that there is almost no media produced without problematic creators or owners, given that so many of our favorite stories are ultimately distributed by corporations and publishers who are not perfect (and sometimes far from it). What matters to me, and what matters to the Harry Potter Alliance, is how fans choose to embody, share, and re-imagine the stories that meant something to them—it’s called fan activism, not franchise activism, for a reason.
Little: What are some of the success stories that have come out of GLA?
Phillips: We’ve had folks start careers in community organizing, change jobs, launch podcasts, zines, and other creative endeavors, become public speakers, gain the confidence to share their gender identity in public, make close friends, and even find their partners at GLA! Every year I hear more and more of these post-event stories and definitely tear up every time. The GLA alumni community now represents over 500 activists around the world, from the United States, to Scotland, to Liberia, and each of those folks is changing our world for the better.
Little: Why did you feel it was important to take this event virtual? (Why not just cancel and wait to gather in person next summer?)
Phillips: GLA is not just an event, it’s a really important gathering space for our community, and it felt like a misstep to not hold that space in this moment. We actually moved our original event dates up (from September to July) because we felt that these conversations and this opportunity for deepening learning was needed as soon as possible.
Little: What do you hope attendees get out of the event?
Phillips: One of the big things we’re working on with Camp GLA is bringing the full event online as much as possible, not just the programs. We didn’t want it to feel like a series of webinars, but like a true community experience. That’s why we’re still hosting a welcome dinner (with a custom menu!), matching attendees with their own virtual cabins to share ideas and make connections, offering evening events and opportunities to hang out between programs, and distributing some of the cutest printable swag you’ve ever seen. Even though we can’t be together in person, we’re pulling out every trick we know to bring GLA together in the digital space. I hope that attendees leave Camp not only with a little more knowledge and a little more confidence, but knowing that they are part of a bigger community that has their back.
Little: Anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Phillips: If you’re not quite sure if you belong at GLA—maybe you don’t know if you’d call yourself an activist, or you feel like you’re not involved in fandom enough—I encourage you to give it a try! You won’t find a more welcoming community, and you never know what you might discover if you go on a little adventure. Tickets start at just $25 and full scholarships are available. We’ll see you at camp!