Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Di has made a life-long contribution to her community in the areas of health, welfare, education and land rights.
Born in Carlton in 1954, Aunty Di identifies with the Ganun Willam Balak clan of the Wurundjeri. Apart from one year of her life when she lived in Canberra, Diane has always resided in Wurundjeri country having grown up in Moorabbin. As a young girl she often spent holidays near Maroondah Dam and remembers when it was beautiful countryside with flowing creeks and open grassland.
As Europeans settled in Victoria, Aunty Di’s people were removed to Coranderrk Mission, a Victorian government reserve established near Healesville in 1863. Aboriginal people at Coranderrk were unable to speak their language or continue any of their traditional cultural practices. As Aunty Di reflected, ‘it was like being a refugee in your own country, they were in a place where one man controlled everything and they were punished if they spoke their own language.’
Inspired by the women in her family
Aunty Di is inspired by the women in her family and has been motivated by the resilience of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Her grandmother left Coranderrk to give birth to Aunty Di’s mother in the New South Wales bush. It was a time when the government was taking Aboriginal children away from their families, so many kept moving around to protect their children. Aunty Di’s mother’s name was Wolert, meaning possum, and for this reason Aunty Di wears her possum skin with pride for ceremonial activities. She is often called on to preside at Welcome to Country ceremonies on Wurundjeri land and finds that working on country makes her feel connected to her mother and grandmother: her words and actions are ‘always said or done in their honour’.
Matriarch of her family
Now Aunty Di is the matriarch of her family and takes pride in being a ‘mum, a stepmum, a foster mum, an aunty and a grandmother.’ Her close family consists of five children - three of her own, a foster son and a cultural daughter – but her home and heart are open to many. ‘Whoever needs to come stay with me, comes to stay with me … I’m the matriarch of the family so my responsibility has broadened.’
Aunty Di has devoted many years to improving the lives of those in her local community. She has worked in various fields including child care, education, native title, Stolen Generation support, and other community activities. She has been a mentor and foster carer for many Aboriginal children and young people. Her passion lies in the area of social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal communities.
Aunty Di was a long-serving member and, at one time, a director, of the Dandenong and District Aboriginal Co-operative and has also been a director of Narragol Housing Co-operative, an organisation providing housing loans to Aboriginal people.
Work in the health sector
In the health sector, Aunty Di has been actively involved with the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne. In 2013 she chaired the hospital’s Community Advisory Committee and was a member of its Consumer Committee. She helped found research at the University of Melbourne’s Heart Research Centre. Research was undertaken around mental illness and chronic disease afflicting the Wurundjeri people in a program, which received funding from mental health agency, Beyond Blue. Aunty Di feels that many Aboriginal people’s health problems stem from ‘a type of post-traumatic syndrome disorder’ which permeates the culture and comes from ‘the stress and distress of being removed off country.’
Since 2014 Aunty Di has been conducting women’s ceremonies for Aboriginal girls. The ceremonies enable the girls to approach womanhood with confidence, having gained a connection to country, a knowledge of their identity and a general sense of well-being.
Aunty Di is well known for her advocacy work and strategic partnership networks with local, state and national governments. She also provides leadership and cultural advice to local councils, corporate and community organisations and is an ambassador for the Indigenous Leadership Network of Victoria.
Aunty Di was involved in Melbourne Museum's First Peoples exhibition, being a member of the Yulendj group – the Museum’s Indigenous Advisory Committee. Yulendj, being a Kulin word for ‘knowledge and intelligence’, was the name chosen by the group, comprised of 16 respected community members and Elders from across Victoria. They guided the Museum on the culture and practices of the First Peoples for the Bunjilaka exhibition and shaped the exhibition into one that represents the diversity, history and pride of Koorie peoples.
Aunty Di was appointed a director of Native Title Services Victoria in January 2013, having formerly been a field officer for the organisation. She is currently Chair of the Board, having taken up that role in October 2013. Diane sees her work towards gaining native title as about much more than land rights:
Native title is about us as a people strengthening our connection with our land that has been diminished by dispossession. Only when we have a strong connection with our land, will our culture flourish and grow. It is that strong and growing culture that will give all of us, but particularly our young people, the strength and confidence to deal with the challenges we face in today’s society. The inner well-spring of knowing and celebrating our unique and timeless culture; of understanding the importance of connecting with our country as a central part of that culture; will nurture our young people whether they are on their own country or working in lands anywhere in the world.
In 2016 Aunty Di was appointed to the Victorian Aboriginal Treaty Working Group by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Natalie Hutchins.
Aunty Di continues to be dedicated to improving the lives of those around her. She relishes the responsibility of guiding younger generations and works hard to uphold Aboriginal culture in a modern, urbanised world.
Reviewed 06 October 2019