Barbara Trent has storied history of activism, Academy Awards


Academy Award winner Barbara Trent feeds one of her goats at The Old Oak Homestead.

Barbara Trent has never been afraid to take a stand.

The Chapel Hill resident first became involved in activism during her high school years in Illinois and hasn’t stopped since.

“I’ve always had a real healthy sense of outrage,” Trent said.

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Support Barbara Trent’s film work by donating to the Empowerment Project.
Contact: 919-928-0382

Fighting corruption has made her a target of FBI investigations, taken her across the globe and, finally, to the Academy Awards.

While helping families on welfare in the 1970s, Trent began the Rural Creative Workshop to integrate rural white communities with black neighborhoods through community activities.

“I was there to help them with what they said they wanted,” she said. “Often what the people in the community need is invisible to those who provide it.”

Trent later went on to train community organizers under the Jimmy Carter administration.

When she moved to California in 1982, she became involved in even larger issues after learning of the CIA’s wars in Central America.

Trent and her partner David Kasper made many documentaries exposing similar government deceptions before taking on one of their largest projects — a film on the 1989 Panama invasion.

“We knew there had to be more to the story,” she said. “We wanted to keep the pressure on the U.S. government to continue to withdraw its troops off those bases and return the land back to Panama.”

It took two years for Trent and Kasper to finish the film, entitled “The Panama Deception.”

But once it premiered, she said it became popular immediately, opening in 80 cities in the U.S., 52 countries and in 23 languages.

In 1993, the film won her an Academy Award for best feature length documentary.

“It was a second of joy, 20 seconds of pride on the walk to the stage, and from there on it was ‘How do we express what people need to hear?’”

Trent and Kasper have made several other documentaries together including “Coverup: Behind the Iran Contra Affair” through their organization, the Empowerment Project.

Kasper said his background in filmmaking and Trent’s time in activism made them good partners.

“She always follows through and sees things to fruition,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest quality I admire in her.”

Today, Trent has taken a break from activism to operate The Old Oak Homestead in Chapel Hill — a self-sustaining, organic farm.

“I think it’s important for people to know how to survive as your infrastructure continues to collapse,” she said.

Kat Norcutt, a former UNC student, has been working on Trent’s homestead through the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program this summer.

“Participating to this extent in the things that sustain you — in your food production, maintaining your house — puts you in a place that’s humbling,” she said. “You’re constantly giving instead of taking all the time.”

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