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Knock Down The House poster featuring first time political candidates, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Paula Jean Swearengin and Amy Vilela, in front of an image of the White House

Knock Down The House - When ‘Little’ Voices Will be Heard?

Reflections on a film screening and public debate hosted by the Morgan Academy and Bevan Foundation at Swansea University on 29 January 2020

By Professor Jane Williams and Laura Wood, Morgan Academy

How do you have a voice in the US Congress as a working class woman of colour with no political experience and no money?
How do you challenge injustice when neither the law nor the established politicians are listening?
How do you take on vested interests to stop deaths from industrial pollution or lack access to health care? 

These are some of the questions addressed in the powerful and inspiring film, Knock Down the House, screened by the Morgan Academy and Bevan Foundation, with support from the Doc Society, at Swansea University on 29 January 2020.

Directed by Rachel Lears, the film follows the journey of four working class women who take on the political establishment by challenging long-standing male incumbents in the 2018 Democratic mid-term elections. They have in common, firstly, membership of the Brand New Congress movement and secondly, that they are ‘mad as hell’: ‘mad’ about the continued, habitual, even systemic, exclusion of the ‘little’ voices in society from decision-making that can be literally a matter of life or death for them.

The film can be seen on Netflix, but the great advantage of a community screening like this one is the debate that can follow. Ours featured a panel of five women who in different ways are very familiar with #KnockDownBarriers:

  • Professor Elwyn Evans QC, the first and for several years only female barrister in Swansea and now Head of Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law
  • Councillor Mary Sherwood, Swansea Cabinet Member for Future Generations and joint spokesperson for Anti-Poverty, Welfare Reform and Equalities for the WLGA Council
  • Ana Guri, Welfare Officer, and Ines Teixeira-Dias, Societies and Services Officer, Swansea University Student Union, and
  • Sian James, veteran grassroots campaigner and first woman MP for Swansea East

The debate connected issues close to home as well as issues confronting the entire world with themes from the film. Here’s a flavour:

Q. Is it ever possible to win an election against opponents who don’t ‘play fair’ or who can muster massive corporate backing?

A. A qualified ‘yes’ or ‘may be’, and ‘it depends’: on where, at what level, on the rules of engagement (for example as to election spending) and crucially, increasingly, on combating manipulation via social media.

Q. What is more important, winning or ‘staying true’? Is winning more important than playing fair, being true to your heartlands, maintaining your political values?

A. Seems like the right moral answer is obvious, doesn’t it? But if it means you never win ….. ?

Q. Is there a way of engaging in politics – especially for younger people – that doesn’t necessarily involve joining a political party?

A. Difficult, not impossible, and REALLY important to think about this.  In Wales, the new Welsh Youth Parliament is issues-based: no political parties. Some of the candidates in Knock Down the House were able to seek nomination without party membership, but once nominated would have to stand for a party. Nowadays there are huge pressing challenges – most obviously climate change – that have to transcend party politics if there is to be a hope of dealing with them, and with which many people want to engage without necessarily getting involved with a political party. Research has shown younger people more interested in political resolution of issues rather than party politics. Community-level work, including Swansea University’s ‘Little Voices’ projects*, demonstrates this is true of children far below the voting age.

Our panel shared their own experiences of difficulties they have had to overcome, what has motivated them throughout their careers and what advice they would give to future candidates. Ana Guri, summed up the feeling in the room with her advice: “Watch Knock Down the House!”

Morgan Academy would like to express their thanks to the Bevan Foundation, Doc Society and the panel members.

*Supported since 2012 with assistance from the National Lottery Community Fund

Photo of panel members Ines Teixeira-Dias and Ana Guri
Photo of panel members Cllr Mary Sherwood and Sian James next to a Morgan Academy pull-up banner
Photo of Ines Teixeira-Dias, Ana Guri, Professor Elwyn Evans QC and Professor Jane Williams