How to Use Pop Culture to Increase Civic Engagement
Some practical advice for conducting cultural acupuncture.
The final film in The Hunger Games franchise hits theaters today. Fans will be flocking to theaters to see the conclusion of Panem’s revolution, but the Harry Potter Alliance is already helping write the next chapter.
Odds in Our Favor is a campaign by the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) to hack the Hunger Games hype and get people talking about real life economic inequality. The practice of combining pop culture and civic engagement, which HPA co-founder (and Civic Hall fellow) Andrew Slack calls “cultural acupuncture,” helps leaders detect and redirect society’s psychological energy toward real world issues and action.
During the first iteration of the Odds in Our Favor in 2013, HPA asked fans to send in pictures of themselves holding up a three-finger salute to acknowledge that the economic inequality and oppression seen on screen were real world issues. In 2014, when Mockingjay Part 1 was released, we asked fans to share their personal Hunger Games stories around how issues like class, gender, sexuality, race, education, ability, employment impact their lives. These stories showed the reality of economic inequality in the U.S. With over 12,000 people telling their story, we were left wondering: what can we do to impact such a large and complicated issue?
This year, Odds in Our Favor is focused on sharing both stories of oppression and action. We’ve partnered with labor unions, nonprofits, artists and activists to form a “Coalition of Rebels” which provide fans with ways to take action. These partners share in-depth first person stories from the communities they work with at MyHungerGames.org. Each story—from Walmart workers to environmental disaster survivors to Syrian refugees—includes an action that either the storyteller has taken to create change in their community, or that the reader can take to make a difference. Fans are no longer just consuming or even telling the story; they’re participating in shaping it.
At the Harry Potter Alliance, we believe all fans can be heroes. Fans are passionate, enthusiastic, authentic and imaginative—four words usually missing when we talk about politics and civic engagement. Through cultural acupuncture we are using fandom as a force for good—and here’s how you can, too.
Follow the Energy
Cultural acupuncture means you don’t wait for people discover to your issue—you bring the issue to where they already are. The Hunger Games trilogy was one of the first major literary phenomena after Harry Potter. The energy and excitement was there, and fans were eager to engage with the story and the issues it represented. The Harry Potter Alliance chose to do something that ultimately shaped our organizing going forward: we followed the energy and did our first non-Harry Potter related campaign.
As the franchise grew to include four feature films, the energy continued to grow and to shift. Fans lamented that this story of economic inequality and revolution was being used to sell make-up and Subway sandwiches. We responded to this bizarre marketing by asking fans to tell the real stories of #MyHungerGames. This year, when the conversation shifted to anger and confusion around the Hunger Games theme park, we asked fans to share ideas for attractions that represent the real Hunger Games. Fans suggested $50,000 tickets, juggling acts where performers balance “rent,” “food,” and “medical,” and roller coasters that require three years of experience in order to ride.
By paying attention to Hunger Games fans, and to this particular cultural moment, we created a responsive campaign for engaging fans around issues of inequality.
Work with Partners
As Odds in Our Favor has grown, we’ve worked with and learned from incredible partners. Having partner organizations on the campaign has allowed us to share stories from incarcerated young people, indigenous activists, mental health advocates, and other communities whose stories often go unheard in mainstream media. Partners also bring the campaign to new audiences: people who follow the partner organizations and use their services gain a new, creative way of engaging with issues they care about. The power of Odds in Our Favor grows, and partner organizers gain another tool for increasing engagement.
From labor unions to international NGO’s, we’ve see civic organizations use cultural acupuncture in incredible ways:
Project UROK created a special #MyHungerGames video series, where people shared stories about mental health and poverty.
AFL-CIO have highlighted present-day labor issues in easy-to-read listicles illustrated with eye-catching gifs from the film.
Campaign for Youth Justice adapted their “Hands of Support” campaign to include the three-finger salute to demonstrate support for incarcerated young people.
HPA chapters have used the Hunger Games to organize their communities around everything from refugee support to climate change education. We’ve seen art shows, hunger (games) banquets, donation drives, teach-ins, and more.
An Outlet for Action
Author John Green has long advocated that stories belong to their readers and that it is the imagination of readers that bring narratives to life—which we believe means that fans hold the power to continue the narrative long after the series ends.
Through the work of fans and partner organizations, we’ve done just that with the Odds in Our Favor campaign. We’ve shared #MyHungerGames stories from an impressive array of communities: workers, prisoners, refugees, protesters, mental health advocates, climate change survivors, and many more. Each story we share includes a call to action: sign a petition; start a discussion; join a march; tell your story.
With so many diverse partners and issue areas, these stories and calls to action could have sounded like a disjointed cacophony. Instead, weaving The Hunger Games narrative through each story and action has created the lyrics to a collective song that every civic organization should be singing: our issues are entwined, your liberation is bound up with mine, and everyone’s actions make a difference. In 2015, we’re witnessing a revolution, and cultural acupuncture is allowing us to understand what that means and imagine ourselves as heroes in the long narrative of history and change.
Katie Bowers is the Campaigns Director for The Harry Potter Alliance, which uses the power of stories to inspire social change.