"...the main thing about it was never standing still, and being very involved in how we could create a better place for Aboriginal people."
- Shirley Peisley
Shirley Peisley AM has been active in campaigning for Aboriginal welfare, cultural and legal rights since the 1960's and is highly regarded for her drive, determination and selflessness. 'Aunty Shirley' is well known for her activism in the lead up to the 1967 Referendum and still campaigns for Constitutional recognition to this day.
Aunty Shirley was raised in Kingston South Australia by her grandparents while her mother sought work in Adelaide South Australia to support herself and her young daughter. At 18 years of age Aunty Shirley moved to Adelaide where she finished her education at Business College.
Aunty Shirley joined the Council of Aboriginal Women of South Australia (CAWSA) in the mid 60's and with the Council became politically active with the Federal Council for Aboriginal Affairs and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI).
The women at CAWSA lobbied strongly for services that were not afforded to Aboriginal people of this time period; housing, employment, education, much needed health services. CAWSA strongly supported the 1967 Referendum in the 'Vote “Yes” for Aborigines' campaign, Aunty Shirley was and remains the iconic faces of that campaign. Until this time Aboriginal people were not considered to be human but rather fell under the Flora and Fauna Act, legislation that considered Aboriginal people to be animals and therefore without the right to vote. The 'Vote “Yes” for Aborigines' campaign for legislative change was victorious and remains the most successful referendum in Australian history.
CAWSA was instrumental in lobbying for the establishment of the first land holding body, the Aboriginal Lands Trust of South Australia and the first Aboriginal Community Centre in Wakefield Street Adelaide from which a legal service, childcare agency, medical service and sporting facility later began operating and is now known as Nunkuwarrin Yunti of South Australia.
In 1970 Aunty Shirley was invited to join a group of 20 students to complete an ‘in-service’ course with the Department of Social Welfare. Aunty Shirley graduated as the first Aboriginal female Probation and Truancy Officer working with youth and the Children’s Court. Aunty Shirley has since worked with the Aboriginal Friends Association, Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, National Aboriginal Conference, Aboriginal Childcare Agency, as a counsellor - Huntington’s Disease Program with Aboriginal Health Organisation and as a manager in the State Library of South Australia. Aunty Shirley was also elected Councillor on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Shirley volunteered her services to the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in 1994 and worked tirelessly for 15 years before retiring in 2009.
In the year 2000, Aunty Shirley received the Order of Australia Medal (AM) for services to the Aboriginal Community in the areas of Culture, Heritage, Legal, Health, Welfare, Library Services, the Church, and Reconciliation.
In 2010 Aunty Shirley received a Papal Blessing from Pope Benedict XVI for services to the Catholic Church.
In 2012 Aunty Shirley was appointed as a Member of the Advisory Panel to seek recognition of Aboriginal people in South Australia’s Constitution. These changes in the State Constitution were historically passed in March 2013.
Aunty Shirley has worked tirelessly throughout her life to advance reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. As Patron of the Gladys Elphick Awards Committee, Aunty Shirley ensures the recognition of Aboriginal women for their outstanding service to the Community having led a life by example.