Aunty Carol Cooper: A Force For Peace

auntie carol cooper

Beloved local community Elder Aunty Carol Cooper, standing in the foreground of ‘The Gully’, her Gundungurra father’s land where she grew up. “I feel at peace here. I feel he’s saying, ‘I’m still here’.”

Story and photos by Linda Moon

Aunty Carol Cooper is a small, humble woman with a big heart and an important message for humanity.

Key Points:

  • Local Katoomba woman Aunty Carol Cooper rose above a childhood of extreme schoolyard racism and violence to become a bridge to reconciliation.
  • In 2023 the Darug and Gundungurra Elder was awarded an Order of Australia medal for outstanding services to the local community.
  • Be inspired by her journey for peace, from the school playground and beyond, in a time when co-operation and working together is more needed than ever to protect life on our planet. 

Seventy three-year-old Carol Cooper was born in Katoomba and continues to call it her home. But she still bears the scars of violent childhood racism in the town. In primary school her nose was broken, her lip split and she nearly lost her chin. Her leg was gashed with broken glass. Boys would follow Carol and her siblings home and throw rocks at the family.

The atrocious racism she experienced wasn’t limited to children. Shockingly, it was also perpetuated by teachers. Aunty Carol said a male teacher, who actively hated ‘blacks’, would make her stand outside the classroom in the rain.

The abuse, which included being told she was dumb, affected her schooling. “I can’t write. I still can’t spell,” Carol tells. She felt that being smart would only make the bullying worse.

Remarkably, the descendent of the Gundungurra and Darug people remains big-hearted and free of bitterness. “That was life back then,” she reflects. “I don’t think I was the only one who got bashed up.” 

Childhood in The Gully

That ‘life back then’ included living in The Gully: traditional lands in the heart of Katoomba. These were re-occupied by Aboriginal people in the early twentieth century due to white settlement of the Mountains.

To Carol and her family, The Gully was home. “It was really good there,” she recalls. “We didn’t want to move.”

In 1957 residents were forcibly removed from their homes for the construction of the Catalina Racetrack. Carol can still recall the traumatic sight of her family home being burnt down. In some recognition of the past, in 2002 The Gully was officially declared an Aboriginal Place.

A life of service

Rather than self-pity or retaliation, Carol’s life has been one of power through contribution and caring. She continues to be a long-standing volunteer at Katoomba North and South Public Primary schools and St Canice’s, Katoomba. A former State basketball player, she’s involved in the Katoomba North School Koori Club and coaches a girl’s basketball team.

A member of multiple community groups, Carol won a Zest Award for Community Volunteering in 2012. She was invited as a delegate for the second International Women for Peace Conference in Dili, Timor-Leste in 2009. She also helped found the Blue Mountains Aboriginal Culture and Resource Centre.

Further promoting respect for and knowledge of her culture, Carol co-authored Fun and Games in Gundungurra. The activity book (published in 2007) teaches Gundungurra language to children.

In recognition of her community work, in 2023 she was awarded the Order of Australia medal. It’s a reminder, she says, that someone is always watching what we do. This includes what’s most important in life: how we treat each other.

“This was my story, but there were a lot more people that were worse off than me and deserve this award more,” she says. “And if it wasn’t for the ANTAR (Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation) women, my story would never have been told.”

Promoting peace and reconciliation

Described by Zest as “the backbone of the reconciliation movement in the Blue Mountains for the past 20 years,” Carol’s work has been hands-on at the grass roots level.

In her volunteer work in Katoomba’s primary schools she tries to help bullies build their confidence, see the error of their ways and be more responsible. To the bullies, she would explain: “Everybody’s somebody. And they’ve all got feelings.”

Actively intervening against bullying, she assists by walking vulnerable kids, including those with disabilities, to the bus, and more. “I like to make sure the kids are okay,” she says. It’s a role Carol learned from her beloved older sister Jenny. The oldest girl in the family, Jenny looked after her nine siblings while their parents worked, often shielding them from bullying. “She was the best sister anybody could have and just wanted to fix that,” Carol says.

Sharing her own childhood story and culture has been another way of building a bridge between cultures. “I love kids,” Carol says. This extends beyond the Indigenous, to embrace children of all cultures.

Lessons from her Elders

Carol attributes everything she’s learned and her ability to care to female mentors in community work, and having a close, loving family who taught her all about the land and how to treat others.

Her father (a member of the Gundungurra tribe) served in World War II and a reserve (Digger Cooper Reserve) in Leura is named in his honour. A Blue Mountains bridge (Auntie Joan Cooper Bridge) was named after Carol’s mother. A Darug woman born in Parramatta, Joan also won an Order of Australia. 

Carol says, “We had it good. We’ve always been a close family. We’ve been blessed; we’ve been lucky. They [her parents] taught us the right way.”

Her mother constantly taught to look after people and help where needed. Of Carol’s victimisation, her mother said, “I know you’ve got scars Carol, but forget the scars, don’t even think of them. If you’re not looking you can’t see it. Always, always be nice to people. Because sooner or later people are going to be nice back to you.” In a world blighted by war, violence and social division, it’s a vital message.

Auntie Carol Cooper in Katoomba

Aunty Carol Cooper at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. Carol was unable to have children of her own, but her lessons of peace, love and co-operation will endure in the lives of the many children and adults whose lives she has touched. 

“Treat people how you’d like to be treated” – Aunty Carol Cooper.

Take Action:

  • Find ways to volunteer and contribute to peace and co-operation within your local community.
  • Help stand against racism, bullying and violence. Teach your children to do the same.
  • Learn about Indigenous culture and how its’ values of land care, contribution and community, can help save the planet.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Linda Moon

Linda Moon has lived in the upper Blue Mountains since childhood and is a freelance writer for Australian media. A qualified naturopath, permaculture designer, mother and former student of social work, her passion is building local community, gardening, mental, emotional, social, housing and environmental health – all of which are linked!

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