Breaking the Boundaries, Australian Activists Tell Their Stories

Breaking the Boundaries

Australian Activists Tell Their Stories

Breaking the Boundaries
Australian Activists Tell Their Stories

Edited by Yvonne Allen and Joy Noble


In collecting these stories, mostly from South Australia, Yvonne Allen and Joy Noble hope to provide ideas and inspiration to readers to encourage them to become active in their communities and to see that ordinary people can do extra ordinary things that can make the world a better and fairer place.

Both know what they are talking about. Allen’s activism began with her opposition to the Vietnam War. She later became involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and was the first coordinator of Adelaide’s Women’s Studies Centre in 1975.

Noble has worked as a social worker and administrator in South Australia and as a community worker with women in New Guinea. She was the first woman to be appointed regional director in the South Australian Department for Community Welfare in 1975.

The stories submitted and included in this publication clearly show that not all activists are unemployable, long-haired rabble rousers bend on destroying private property and having a good time while at it. All 46 contributors are far from this perceived stereotype.

Activists have come in many different guises: Aborigines, authors, bankers, barristers, blue and white collar workers, children, doctors, ex-politicians, farmers, gays, grandparents, hippies, housewives, lawyers, lesbians, newcomers, nurses, parents, politicians, professors, prostitutes, refugees, students and teenagers to name just a few.

Some of the activists have become well known for their work while others have contributed quietly but in a significant way. All of them have at some stage crossed and/or broken existing boundaries and spoken out about existing conditions in an attempt to change and improve them for their communities or marginalised people in Australia or anywhere else in the world. The stories not only show that there are many wrongs in this world but surprisingly also in Australia. Consequently there are many marginalised people and untold issues which are considered unjust or wrong.

Throughout Australia’s history there have been issues which have caused people to become activists. It is only because of people becoming involved and actively doing something about them that conditions have improved. Not all have been successful but most have, even if it sometimes took many years for it to be achieved. In other instances conditions have improved but are still far from acceptable.

Among these issues are many which have now been forgotten and many of us don’t even realise that it was once very different. During the last 50 years activist have protested, held meetings, written letters, printed flyers, marched, walked or did whatever was appropriate, or not, to voice their support or opposition to such issues as: air pollution, abortion, animal welfare, boat people, climate change, Coal Seam Gas, conscription, discrimination, equal pay, euthanasia, gay rights, GM food, logging, mining, Native Title Act, nuclear power and prostitution.

Other issues have been: protecting the Coorong, Kimberley, Nullarbor, Nuyts Reef, River Murray, and St Francis Island. Pine Gap, Pyramid selling, racism, saving the parklands from becoming parking lands, sand mining on Fraser Island, sexism, solar energy, Trees for life, uranium mining, Vietnam War and women’s rights and the list could go on.

Some of these have affected only a small group of people while others were local council matters, State or National issues. Whatever the case, small or large, it was only because someone took an interest to right the wrong that it was changed. Khadija Gbla, who arrived in 2001 became an activist and worked successfully for the banning of Female Genital Mutilation in Australia. For her 'Being an activist is about being more than yourself. It is about creating a better world'. Khadija was listed in 2014 as one of the most influential women in South Australia.

Julian Burnside, AO QC is an Australian barrister, human rights and refugee advocate and author. He was awarded the 2014 Sydney Peace Price: 'For his brave and principled advocacy for human rights and for those wronged by government, for insisting that we respect our international legal obligations toward those seeking asylum, and for his unflinching defence of the rule of law as a means to achieve a more peaceful and just society'.

Not all accounts are from award winners or traditional activists, those who protested and did it the hard way. Some of the stories are from people who were active while still very young or much older but they all achieved their aims to improve conditions which were overlooked by the majority of people and governments as too hard.

Georgina Williams, born and raised on the Point Pearce Mission Station on Yorke Peninsula, was the eldest of 15 children and a descendant of Kudnarto, the first Aboriginal woman to legally marry a white settler in 1848. Her early life was that of an outcast on the fringe of whitefellas’ society. Against all odds but with determination and courage she became a nurse and involved in the Aboriginal Advancement Activities, the first Aboriginal organisation in South Australia.

She understood ‘how losing our lands that held our laws, our culture and our spirituality, and having to learn the whitefellas ways, was killing us as surely as the diseases, the axe and the plough the settlers had brought with them’. It also was the cause of ‘much of the sickness and ill health we face and resulted in being forced out of our old ways of life. It has led most of us into intergenerational poverty and the loss or our spiritual relationship with our country’.

Jo Vallentine had a farming background in Western Australia and was educated at Loreto Convent boarding school. During her school years she polished shoes to earn money to help missions in Africa. After becoming a teacher she took part in the opposition to the Vietnam War, the Campaign against Nuclear Energy and joined the Quakers. Later she was involved in the campaign to save natural forests, the Aboriginal Treaty Support Group, Community Aid Abroad and many other worthwhile issues.

She and several other activists from all over Australia saw being a member of the government as a way of helping their causes. Jo was elected to the Senate. Others joined political parties before considering nominating for preselection as candidates, among them Margaret Reynolds. Political Lobbying has also been used by many and although not always successful it is still a strategy that makes the best impression for reform.

Activists learnt to use the media in an attempt to influence public opinion. One of the most spectacular and eventual successful action was the opposition to what was going on at Pine Gap near Alice Springs. It resulted in a world-wide media cover and the straining of some international relations. It was a long drawn-out affair which resulted in the arrest of 111 women activists during a very hot day in November 1983.

Breaking the Boundaries gives many possible ways on how to achieve improvements, what works and what doesn’t. Raising public awareness and focusing attention by speaking out is definitely one of them as is setting directions of new or improved policy, legislation and services. Initiating or joining action groups, protests, boycotts and campaigns to bring about these changes have also resulted in success. Most of all the stories show that changes can, and have been, achieved by ordinary methods and ordinary people.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Breaking The Boundaries
PB., 233 pp, is available at $29.95, from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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