UnCommonwealth: Lexpecto Patronum harnesses the power of Harry Potter for social justice causes

The Winter Wizarding Waltz fundraiser presented by Lexpecto Patronum, the official Lexington chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance, took place at The Plantory on West Sixth Street on Feb. 28.
The Winter Wizarding Waltz fundraiser presented by Lexpecto Patronum, the official Lexington chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance, took place at The Plantory on West Sixth Street on Feb. 28.

Lexpecto Patronum: It sounds like what might happen if Harry Potter moved to Lexington and started conjuring around Sixth Street,

That's not totally inaccurate.

Sarabeth Brownrobie of Lexington, who works as a programming director at The Plantory on Sixth Street, was already volunteering for the nonprofit Lexington United, which teaches classes in conflict resolution, prejudice reduction and cooperative games. But after hearing about the international Harry Potter Alliance and verifying that starting a branch wasn't just a fan-club activity, she started Lexpecto Patronum this year.

Lexpecto Patronum is a reference to "Expecto patronum!" — in the Potter books, a spell that fends off bad guys with a burst of positive energy.

Brownrobie, who also goes by the first-name moniker of "Plum," found that working on a Potter alliance group could help her with one of her favorite causes, fair-trade chocolate, which works to make sure cocoa farmers get fair prices and workers were not exploited in production.

"I love Harry Potter, I love fair-trade chocolate, and it turned out to be invested in using solid social justice techniques to achieve their goals," Brownrobie said of the Harry Potter Alliance.

Although Lexpecto Patronum has a big Facebook presence, Brownrobie said the group is running an online campaign to purchase supplies to help members deliver by bicycle brigade the books they've collected for underserved areas of Lexington.

Andrew Slack, creator and executive director of the international Harry Potter Alliance, describes the Potter groups as "a Dumbledore's army for our world." (In the Potter books, Dumbledore's Army was a group formed to teach defense against the "dark arts" to students at the Hogwarts school.")

Slack was looking for a way to take to the next level those who had lined up for the release of the Potter books (the last published in 2007) and then read them in marathons without sleep. How could the Potter fans burnish the legacy of a youthful wizard who spawned a literary empire, a series of special effects-laden movies and a Wizard World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando?

In a video introduction to the Potter Alliance, Slack describes it as a way to create Potteresque heroes "in our world," with the spirit of Potter creating a gateway to civic engagement.

There already are Harry Potter Alliance sprout-outs such as the Expecto Gorillas in Ohio, The Rocky Mountain Muggles and the Whomping Wolverines in Michigan.

In the Harry Potter universe, "expecto" is part of a charm incantation, Muggles are non-magical humans and the "Whomping Willow" is an aggressive tree planted on the grounds of Harry Potter's school, Hogwarts.

Lexpecto Patronum is seeking members ranging in age from 12 to nearly senior citizen, but its appeal so far seems to be for younger people who are moved by the injustices they see in young-adult book series. The group has nearly 140 members.

Said Brownrobie: "If you talk to kids about The Hunger Games, they could tell you everything about how unjust that is," but they might not understand the drive for a higher minimum wage.

The Hunger Games is a series of dystopian novels written by Suzanne Collins and adapted into a blockbuster movie series starring Kentuckian Jennifer Lawrence.

Brownrobie sees her group as a way to link the book themes with social justice causes by applying the power of the stories. There's also a nearby Harry Potter Alliance group at Woodford County High School, the WCHS Wizengamot.

In the Potter books, the Wizengamot is wizard Britain's high court of law.

Brownrobie asked the people who wanted to participate in Lexpecto Patronum to pick a favorite literary character and a social justice campaign.

In its first few months, Lexpecto Patronum has staffed a pay equity booth at the Night Market; an information table asking Good Foods Co-Op shoppers, "Is there slavery in your chocolate?"; and a book drive to distribute summer reading material in pools, parks and other locations not close to a public library branch.

The group also held a "winter wizarding waltz," a Harry Potter-themed ball and dinner, at The Plantory and catered by Lexington Diner, with proceeds giving the group seed money. "Magic wands" were sold.

The Lexpecto Patronum members plan to dress in costumes and distribute the books. It's important that children choose their reading, Brownrobie said, rather than having it chosen for them: "It's totally for summer. Pick what you want. ... There will be costumes involved, for frivolity."

Some members have Harry Potter costumes; others might dress as pirates.

Future projects are being discussed and might include selling fair trade bracelets for the benefit of Nepal earthquake relief.

Brownrobie said the Potter books were instant classics because they stressed "home, honesty and fairness" and showed "the power of stories to change people."

Because of that, she said, "They will always be something that resonates with people."