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Return of a Radical

Barbara Trent picked through the pile of scrap metal like a squirrel sorting nuts.

“There are a lot of memories here,” she said as she poked through the rusted heap inside a battered building in Makanda. There must have been a ton of memories. Big pieces, little pieces, all of it handpicked scraps of cast iron and ornate pieces of copper and bronze. Tooled steel from ancient machines.

She'd collected the stuff to use in her sculptures y
ears ago when she worked as an artist in Southern Illinois. That was before she got famous, before she became a film maker and won the Academy Award.

She was back in town this past week to present her Oscar-winning film, “The Panama Deception” at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. But she was also back in town to sift through this pile of metal and to revisit the rusted ghosts of her past.

There are a lot of ghosts.

Trent spent 16 years as a community organizer and activist in Southern Illinois back in the volatile '60s and '70s. And she is perhaps better remembered by some for the hell she raised back then than for any of her filmmaking. Her tactics back then sometimes ruffled feathers, hurt people’s feelings, and cost people their jobs.

Trent may have been just another poor single mother struggling to survive and start a life for herself in those days had it not been for one incident that pushed her over the edge.

“I was a welfare mother,” she related, “and I was just someone who got into a jam, you know? And I went in for my first welfare check at some office in Union County and they treated me like ‘you slut, you little white trash slut. We're going to be paying for you and your little bastard for the next 18 years.’ ”

“I was so outraged,” she said. “I just started organizing.”

And organize she did.

Trent worked with a variety of projects in those days, as a grant writer, community developer, counselor and social activist. She helped funnel government aid to rural and black communities throughout Southern Illinois. She was one of the founders of Synergy, a drug and life crisis intervention service in Carbondale.

She focused her activities on the youth, the rural poor, and the student and minority communities.

Her work back then might have been called, on one hand, community service. On the other hand she might have been called a rabble rouser, a troublemaker, a radical. She was called "abrasive" by some. She was forceful and insistent. She didn't take no for an answer and her crowd was one that was fond of pounding on table tops and issuing demands.

She got involved in a messy little political scene in the town of Makanda, where she lived and worked, and she was one of the leaders of the antiwar movement on campus.

Her activities eventually attracted the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led to her eight-count indictment on charges of misusing $1,500 in federal funds. She pleaded guilty to a one charge and ordered to pay restitution of $100. The seven other charges were dropped.

She still believes she was targeted back then, as were so many other radicals of that era, and unjustly accused.

But that was a long time ago. Things have changed. And to some extent she has changed, too. She's mellowed.

“People know me as a firebrand,” she said this past week. “I've been wrong often, about little things. But I understood the dynamics and what was going on back then.”

Back then, for instance, students were tossing out university presidents left and right across the country. It was no different at SIU, the students here took aim at Delyte Morris.

The complaints about Morris then - other than the million dollar Stone House, which eventually led to his downfall - revolved around the fact that he had professors on the payroll who weren't teaching classes, Trent said. Buckminster Fuller, for instance, and international artists from the Soviet Union and Europe.

“Morris believed that if you brought all these people together, something extraordinary would happen,” Trent said, a touch of remorse in her voice. “And we busted him for it. It didn't matter who he was, we were tossing out presidents back then. Across the country.

“It didn't matter if he was St. Francis, we would have thrown him out,” she said, adding: “That's the one thing I regret that we did back then. He was such a soft, gentle, sweet man.”

Trent isn't one to regret much, however. And although she may acknowledge mistakes made in the past, she stays true to the basic tenets behind her social work and her films.

“I've always thought of it as a healthy sense of outrage,” she said.

And that same sense of outrage has fueled her films as well.

“The Panama Deception” depicts the 1989 invasion of Panama and explores the real reasons why the United States sent thousands of troops into a foreign country, ostensively to arrest one man. And it exposes how the American media acted as “hand maidens” to the Pentagon and led the public to believe that only a handful of Panamanians and U.S, soldiers were killed in the operation when in fact, as other sources have documented, thousands of civilians were killed and thousands of homes and buildings were destroyed.

The three films she's made with her organization, the Empowerment Project, all serve as indictments of the American government and its policies overseas. The movies attack foreign intervention and media complicity, and they illustrate the toll exacted on the people of nations subjected to those policies.

The issues that drive Trent today are not unlike those that drove her when she lived in Southern Illinois 16 years ago.

Trent has been revisiting the past in many ways this past week. And although she's headed back to North Carolina, where the Empowerment Project is headquartered, she says she may be ready to return to Southern Illinois.

The process of making films, of going heavily into debt to produce something you believe in and working for years to pay off your benefactors is starting to taking a toll on her.

“I'm tired,” she acknowledged.

Although there are other movie projects she'd like to attack — such as the current national hysteria over the militia movement and the public's willingness to give up personal liberties to allow the government to deal with this new perceived “enemy within” — she knows she has to slow down.

There is the enormous amount of money and time invested in her films. There's also her health to consider, a serious surgery less than six weeks ago. There are personal reasons to slow down, too. Her mother is dying.

“There are some things I just can't do anymore.”

She admits she'd like to slow down.

“I look at the people in the movie industry who are rich, and they work around the clock,” she said. “I don't know if I want to be in the business that way. I don't think we're meant to work ourselves to death. I'd like to cook. I actually like to clean. I'd like to live. I'd like to enjoy my life, do my metal work again.”

“And I'm seriously considering moving back.”

But that isn't to say this Academy Award-winning film producer is getting out of the movie business.

“If I’m doing my own films and not trying to run an organization, I don't need to be in a town of 500,000 people. I could live here in the country,” she said. “If I came back, I’d do my films and I'd do my art.”

Such a move would complete the circle in some respects.

“I was out there on the old property and I felt so nostalgic,” she mused. “I've never been home like I've been home here. I love Southern Illinois, Makanda.”

That pile of metal she picked through this past week may represent a link to her past, but it also may be a bridge to her future.

And sometimes, when you listen to her speak about her work, and then listen to her talk about Southern Illinois it's difficult to decide which she cherishes more, that pile of rusted metal in the sheds of Makanda or the piece of gold she calls Oscar.


Collected written works  |  Gary Marx



Somewhere Over the 

     Rainbow: The People

     Who Live Outside


The Run for the Wall:

     Motorcycles and


Return of a Radical:

     Oscar Winner Barb

     Trent Returns to Old

     Stomping Grounds

Along the Jack’s Fork:

     Canoeing in the Ozarks