Aunty Beryl Booth is one of Victoria's unsung heroes and a lifelong advocate for Aboriginal people around the state. From education to the environment, there are few areas that have not benefited from her commitment and political nous.
The Gunditjmara and Gunaikurnai Elder was born in Fitzroy in 1942, the eldest of four children and only daughter to Harry Booth and Hannah (née Lovett). As a child, Beryl spent holidays with her mother's family in the Western District and her father's in the east. The spirit of her rural cousins helped balance her restless urban nature.
From an early age, Beryl understood the political milieu of being an urban Aboriginal woman. Her parents worked tirelessly for their community and would assist Aboriginal people in custody at the local police station, representing them in court and purchasing meals for them from the Rainbow Hotel in Fitzroy. The legacy of their efforts has provided Beryl with an endless source of inspiration.
As a child, Beryl assisted in a family venture that helped fund the activities of Aboriginal rights activists. She would fold paper bags that her father — the first Aboriginal taxi driver in Melbourne — would then distribute during his shift to collect old clothing and linen. These items were either sent to the Lake Tyers Aboriginal settlement, or deconstructed, and the zippers, buttons and fabric sold. Enough money was raised to purchase a vehicle, which was then used by community members to deliver pamphlets to raise awareness of the Aboriginal cause.
After finishing school, Beryl initially worked in factories. She married Noel McDonald, with whom she had four sons and two daughters. The family moved to Gippsland, first to Sale and then to Traralgon. Beryl became a mainstay of the community, doing whatever she could to help others. While working as a beautician, she developed a grooming protocol, which she shared with Aboriginal women to help build their confidence and self-respect. Beryl also assisted with adult education classes and would drive to neighbouring towns after work to collect students. Many elderly Aboriginal people were given the opportunity to learn to read and write as a result.
In 1969, Beryl successfully applied for the position of Community Liaison Officer with the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. She balanced caring for her young family with working to address issues associated with education, health and housing within the local Aboriginal community. In 1973, she represented Victoria at a major Aboriginal conference in Darwin, organised by the Catholic Church in the lead up to the 40th Eucharistic Congress. It was a significant moment for Beryl: she was inspired by what could be achieved when Aboriginal people across Australia worked together.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Beryl focused on reuniting Aboriginal families whose children had been removed. As the vice-president of the local junior football team, she encouraged involvement in sport as a means to resettle young people back into their families and the community. Always looking for ways to get involved, Beryl played on a Koori women's softball team.
Beryl worked closely with the local council to advocate for Aboriginal interests. In 1978, a friendly conversation with a local businessman at the football, led Beryl and others to help set up an Aboriginal building society. It was the first initiative of its kind in Victoria and helped fund housing for the Aboriginal community. The model was later adopted elsewhere. Beryl also helped establish one of the region's first Aboriginal co-operatives, the Central Gippsland Aboriginal Health and Housing Co-operative.
Later, Beryl was employed as one of the first Aboriginal teacher's aides at Liddiard Road Primary School in Traralgon. The role was not limited to the classroom: Beryl visited Aboriginal families to assist getting children to school, ran breakfast and lunch programs and helped engage parents with school activities.
After returning to Melbourne to care for her mother in 1981, Beryl went on to spend 10 years as a public officer at the Kerrup Jmara Elders Corporation. At the time, the organisation was the peak body representing the Gunditjmara people on matters related to traditional ownership. Their efforts resulted in the Commonwealth Government passing the Aboriginal Land (Lake Condah and Framlingham Forest) Act 1987, at the request of the Victorian Government. It was a historic and hard-won decision that recognised Beryl's people as the custodians of land at Lake Condah in Western Victoria.
In 1995, Beryl opened an 'Aboriginal Embassy' in her Northcote home. She dedicated it to the work of her parents, grandparents and others who had come before her. In the role of 'ambassador', Beryl wrote hundreds of letters to representatives at all levels of government, pushing for action on countless issues affecting Aboriginal people. She provided a safe place in which anyone could voice their concerns. She also helped organise some of the first 'Welcome to Country' ceremonies for Banyule City Council. Beryl's work at the embassy has been acknowledged by community and political leaders.
Over the years, Beryl has donated her time to many prominent Aboriginal-run organisations, including the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service, where she is regularly invited to give talks on cultural awareness to doctors. She was involved during the earliest days of what is today the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages. Beryl has also been a member of the Victorian Indigenous Remembrance Committee since it was established and plays a central role in planning the Victorian Indigenous Remembrance Service held at the Shrine of Remembrance each year. She helped produce a short film documenting several years of the event.
Beryl has also ventured into the arts. She is co-author of a short story, The Tree, which was published in theAustralian Short Stories serial in 1993. In 2004, she was cast as Nanna in the Ilbijerri Theatre Company's production of Rainbow's End, which was performed at Melbourne Museum and in Shepparton. Today, she still engages in community work and continues to perform 'Welcome to Country' ceremonies. Her work as a member of the Indigenous Victorian Aboriginal Reconciliation Committee resulted in an award from the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 2000. She hopes to find time to record in writing the many untold Aboriginal stories she feels are yet to find a place in Australian literature.
Aunty Beryl has a strong connection to her ancestors and their strength has enabled her to continue the fight for a better future for all Aboriginal people. While she humbly plays down her own contribution, recognition of her achievements is long overdue.
Reviewed 30 September 2019