Aunty Lola James was a Yorta Yorta Elder, who was born in Mooroopna, Victoria on 23 November 1941. She came from a strong line of powerful trailblazers whose work included activism, education, and access to services for Aboriginal people. She is the granddaughter of teacher, unionist and activist, Shadrach Livingstone James (inducted into the Victorian Aboriginal Honour Roll in 2020), and the great granddaughter of Methodist lay preacher, linguist, herbalist and teacher, Thomas Shadrach James.
Lola went to primary and secondary school in Mooroopna and spent some time working at the Ardmona Cannery, where many of her family members had worked for years. At the age of 19, she moved to Melbourne. Lola married and gave birth to six children – four boys and two girls. She later divorced and raised her children independently.
Lola initially struggled as a single parent in the Seventies. After her first two children were born, she lost her mother to cancer, and her father became more ill daily as a result of a brain injury he suffered on the Kokoda Trail during WWII. Lola often stated that if it weren’t for the support of the Melbourne Aboriginal community organisations and community members, she didn’t know how she would have made it through with six children. All of her family supports were in Mooroopna and she did not have a driver licence until she began working at the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA).
Lola wanted to ensure her children had a positive role model and for them to understand the importance of education, training and an impeccable work ethic. Once her youngest child was in school, Lola entered the workforce. For the next thirty years Lola built an important legacy centring on the education, health and welfare of Aboriginal people in Victoria.
Lola’s professional working life started as an Aboriginal Health Worker (AHW) at Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS), for which she completed training at Koori Kollij to obtain professional AHW qualifications. She worked at VAHS for the next decade, providing essential health care services.
Lola was a very passionate worker, and often spoke about wanting to ensure the health and safety of rough sleepers located in Fitzroy. She was also concerned about the health and wellbeing of Elders who lived alone with minimal assistance. Lola would often attend to Elders in her own time. It also wasn’t unusual for her to care for her own elderly extended family members.
While Lola was at VAHS and studying at Koori Kollij she moved her elderly father from Mooroopna to Melbourne to live with her and her children. It was a very challenging time for Lola, trying to juggle six children, a full-time job, studies, and a very unwell parent. Lola eventually left VAHS to care for her father fulltime until he required residential care.
Next, Lola worked as a Family Support Worker at the Aboriginal Advancement League (AAL) before leaving to explore her true passion, child welfare at VACCA. Over the 20 years Lola was at VACCA, she was employed as a Family Support Worker, Foster Care Worker, Cottage Parent, and Coordinator of what is now the Lakidjeka Aboriginal Child Specialist Advice and Support Service. She was also a dedicated VACCA volunteer (foster carer), and a VACCA Board member and member of the Foster Care Panel for many years.
Lola’s work within the child welfare arena meant Aboriginal children were placed within Aboriginal families wherever possible. When this was not possible, Lola was responsible for ensuring Aboriginal children were placed in culturally safe environments, where their culture was accepted, embraced, and celebrated.
Lola worked unstintingly for VACCA over those two decades. Before VACCA obtained sufficient funding for its programs, many of the staff worked ‘on call’ voluntarily, without pay. They would attend late night Child Protection notifications and court hearings. Notifications were often for regional Victoria clients and Lola would drive for many hours and without overnight accommodation to support Aboriginal children in regional areas. Furthermore, it’s estimated that Lola personally cared for about 200 children within her own home when there were shortages of extended biological families and available foster carers. Some children stayed one or two days, some for months, and some for years. One child became a permanent family member.
For the children concerned, being taken in by Lola meant they were in a home where they were understood and free to live and breathe their cultural practices without judgement, making their removal from their biological families a little less painful. Lola’s children and grandchildren are still contacted by children cared for by Lola, wanting to follow up on her, or ask questions about her and their time spent within her family.
Lola won a Foster Care Award from the then Victorian Department of Human Services for her important contribution to the foster care of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. It was also during this period that the Victorian Government developed a policy to ensure VACCA is notified immediately whenever an Aboriginal child comes to the attention of Child Protection. Lola’s family understands this is a direct result of the vigorous education, training and campaigning of Lola and her dedicated staff at VACCA.
Lola’s work within VACCA has had an enormous effect on the colleagues who worked alongside her, either within VACCA or within the then Department of Human Services. She was responsible for professionally mentoring many new VACCA employees, and educated them on Aboriginal protocols, and family and community connections. She shared her knowledge and insights into the removal and reunification of Aboriginal children and their families. She was instrumental in educating all workers who worked with Aboriginal children about the impacts of child removal within Aboriginal families, and the transgenerational trauma many Aboriginal people carry, as a result of former government policies that resulted in the Stolen Generations.
In November 2016, Lola entered the Dreamtime with her family by her side at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne. Lola became a posthumous inductee of the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2021. Her contribution to the health and welfare of Victoria’s Aboriginal community will be forever remembered and respected. Aunty Lola’s legacy continues through her family and community, and the people whose lives were enriched by having known her.
Reviewed 28 October 2022