Aunty Laura Bell is a respected Gunditjmara Elder who works tirelessly for Aboriginal communities across Victoria. Through her ability to inspire and enlighten, she has helped implement educational, legal and cultural initiatives that have improved lives and created opportunities for Aboriginal people.
Laura was born in Portland, Victoria, in 1936. Her mother, Mary Murray Rose, and her father, Frederick Amos Lovett, were both from the Lake Condah Mission, but raised their family in a nearby hamlet known as Greenvale. Laura had six brothers and two sisters.
As a child, Laura attended church at the mission each Sunday. The church was an important meeting place for the Aboriginal community, where families came together to socialise and support each other. Laura remembers fondly the picnics and epic childhood adventures she shared with her siblings and cousins. The church was demolished in the 1950s, however Laura often returned to the site as an adult to help her Aunty Connie Hart maintain the mission cemetery.
Laura completed her education at Mount Eckersley State School. Although she was aware of discrimination against Aboriginal people from an early age, it was only later in life that Laura understood the extent to which her people's culture had been deliberately suppressed by colonial institutions. She remembers her father being barred from pubs because he was an Aboriginal man, despite being a veteran of both world wars (Laura's father, along with four other Lovett brothers, were inducted to the 2013 Victorian Indigenous Honour Roll together for their unique record of military service).
A resident of Heywood for most of her adult life, Laura has always felt most at home when on Gunditjmara country. As a mother of nine children, the demands of a large family occupied her for a number of years; she cared for two nieces and four nephews in addition to her own. However, Laura continued to support the work of family and friends in advancing Aboriginal rights.
In 1976, Laura attended the first local committee meeting of the newly established Victorian Aboriginal Education Consultative Group, which later became the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated (VAEAI). From that moment, she was dedicated to achieving better education and training outcomes for Aboriginal people around the state. Her involvement with VAEAI spans four decades, during which time she has served on the committee of management in a variety of roles, including vice-president. Among her achievements, Laura helped increase the number of Aboriginal people employed as Koorie Educators in schools; she herself worked as one for five years. As chair of the Barwon South West Regional Koorie Education Committee she provided local input to government policy.
Over the years, Laura has used her presence on advisory boards and committees at many of the Victoria's leading tertiary institutions, including South West TAFE, Glenormiston College, Deakin University, University of Melbourne, Monash University and Victorian University of Technology, to promote understanding of Aboriginal culture to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students and staff. She was also a valued member of the Aboriginal Education Management Committee at the University of Ballarat.
In 1991, Laura helped establish the Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation. It was a community-run organisation in the truest sense, devised by a committed group of like-minded people scribbling ideas on butcher's paper, over a fish and chip dinner. From humble beginnings – family barbecues in the park and playgroups run out of people's homes were among its first initiatives – Winda-Mara has grown to provide a wide range of services to Aboriginal communities in and around Heywood, Hamilton and Portland, covering health, land management, housing and economic development. It is also a significant employer of Aboriginal people. Laura is a life member and can still be found cooking and cleaning there most weeks.
When the Mirimbiak Nations Aboriginal Corporation (the predecessor to Native Title Services Victoria) was established in 1996 as the representative body for native title in Victoria, Laura was elected to the inaugural Board of Directors. She supported the native title claim of the Gunditjmara people, which resulted in the return of 140,000 hectares of Crown land and waters in the Portland region in 2007. In 2011, the Gunditjmara and Eastern Maar peoples were recognised as the native title-holders of almost 4,000 hectares of Crown land in the Yambuk region. Both were historic moments for Laura and her people.
Laura was involved with the establishment of the Victorian Koori Court, a division of the Magistrates' Court of Victoria, and is passionate about her role as one of the Court's Elder representatives. Her no-nonsense approach has earned her great respect from magistrates and defendants alike. Aunty Laura is a member of the Victorian Government's Regional Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee and was the first Aboriginal board member of Heywood Rural Health, a local public hospital and aged care facility. Her work as a community advocate has seen her invited to speak at local, national and international forums, including as a member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Church Committee.
Today, Aunty Laura has 23 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren, each of whom is a source of pride. She is a passionate supporter of the Lake Condah Wanderers Football Netball Club and a devoted member of the St John's Anglican Church ladies' guild. In 2001, Aunty Laura received the Centenary Medal for her service to the community. The same year she was one of the inaugural inductees to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women. She is listed in Who's Who of Australian Women and has received a Certificate of Appreciation from Deakin University's Institute of Koorie Education.
Further recognition of her lifelong commitment to Aboriginal education comes from the accommodation wing named after her at Deakin University's Kitjarra Student Residency. Winda-Mara is also home to the Aunty Laura Bell Education Centre. In 2013, the University of Ballarat honoured Aunty Laura with Doctor of the University Honoris Causa. Despite all these accolades, she lists one of her proudest achievements as participating in the Portland leg of the 2006 Commonwealth Games baton relay.
Armed with common sense, political savvy, compassion and an infectious laugh, Aunty Laura manages to be both highly respected and much loved. She is a true inspiration.
Reviewed 29 September 2019