To the delight of muggles and half-bloods alike, April brought the opening of Pottermore, a digital portal for the best-selling novels about Hogwarts’ young wizard that have captured the hearts and minds of a generation. The wizarding world of Harry Potter has taken the planet by storm, selling nearly half a billion copies and reconnecting children and adults everywhere with a love of reading. An international phenomenon, it has been translated into over 70 languages, becoming a cultural touchstone worldwide.
What universal appeal might the story of Harry Potter, with its upstart wizards and dark overlords, have for the real struggles of people around the globe? Some may say the books relate little; fantastical diversions from everyday life. And yet, the magic of literacy and power of imagination open up very real possibilities for the world to change. One only has to peer inside the mind of its young female author.
I had the great chance to hear the incomparable J.K. Rowling give the commencement speech in 2008 at Harvard (or “the world’s largest gathering of Gryffindors,”) where she captivated a live audience. In it, Rowling turns back the clock on her magical world to the reveal the grim stories and real-life villains she came face to face with as a young British staffer at human rights organization Amnesty International:
“Though I personally will defend the value of bedtime stories to my last gasp,” says Rowling in her address, “I have learned to value imagination in a much broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
“One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those books. I paid the rent in my early 20s by working at the African research department at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London. Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had the temerity to speak against their governments. Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power.
And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before. The power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my life,” says Rowling.
As a reader, a fan, a student of global education policy and an advocate for investing in people, I couldn’t help but take away a powerful sense of purpose from that day, as I moved out into the world. At its heart, education works its own magic. As it teaches us to read, it enables us to empathize with other people, think critically about the world around us, and ultimately, to imagine something better.
Watch the full video of J.K. Rowling’s moving speech at Harvard.
Christine Horansky is an advocate for global education and champion for women and girls, who is a Global Shaper in the Washington D.C. hub. She recently served as a moderator for the World Bank’s Open Forum on Gender and the U.S. Department of State’s Women in Public Service launch. She holds a Master’s degree in International Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Mount Holyoke College.
A version of this piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.