One Nashville Woman Moving the South Forward

Becca Stevens of Thistle Farms is one of CNN's Top 10 American Heroes of 2016.

Ashley Riddle Williams
Becca Stevens
Peggy Napier

Twenty years ago Nashville native, Rev. Becca Stevens started a project aimed at providing housing to survivors of trafficking and prostitution. Then named, Magdalene, it started by servicing five women. Today, the two-year program serves up to 32 women at a time, not only providing them with housing but medical care, therapy, and job training.

As a survivor of abuse herself, Stevens has personal ties to this cause. “When we can take our brokenness and turn it into compassion for other people, it’s healing. We can do a lot together when we aren’t stuck in our shame,” she says. “When you love and heal the women, you help the whole community.”

Stevens' impact in moving these efforts forward since she began the project in 1997 has been tremendous. Today, her initiative has been renamed Thistle Farms and has grown to include four social enterprises—a line of bath and body products, a cafe, an artisan studio, and a global market—that give survivors employment opportunities. This year alone, Stevens has generated more than $850,000 of income for the women she serves.

The efforts don’t stop there. The organization also has approximately 30 sister organizations that model themselves after the initial residential program and another thirty affiliate programs, known as the Thistle National Network. It includes organizations such homeless shelters and prisons that touch the lives of this group of women and strive to find new ways to help them. Through workshops, networking support, and even one-on-one help, Thistle Farms provides this network with the education and tools needed to succeed.

“Poverty opens us up to vulnerability and violence; it’s institutionalized and really hard to get out of. We want to do what we can to help and it takes the whole community. Civic and religious groups are needed—and all sort of individuals—to provide long-term solutions ” she says.

Steven's outreach also includes speaking engagements across the country aimed at educating the public on this epidemic that impoverished communities often face. Just this year, she’s spoken 120 times, in more than 50 cities and towns spanning the country from Palo Alto, California to Romney, West Virginia.

When speaking about her experience, Stevens says, “I’m the most grateful for the huge response from strangers who offer words of hope and healing. They really want to help and do good. Most people just want to hope with you, love you, and help you make the world a better place. It’s so beautiful to know that about our world.”

Recently, Stevens was nominated as one of CNN’s Top 10 American Heroes, which will award one winner $100,000 to put toward their cause.

“If by some act of God, I’m awarded this prize, that money will go towards supporting this network, specifically towards supporting a number of these new communities,” she says, “What is necessary to begin a similar program is really a small group of people who are committed to a simple premise that it takes a community breaking down for women to be trafficked, prostituted, addicted, abused, and it takes a community coming together to provide healing.” To vote for Becca and Thistle Farms visit CNN.com.