Becca Stevens is a woman with many titles — reverend, mother, entrepreneur, humanitarian, wife, author, activist, speaker, survivor. And if it was up to her, I’m certain she’d add “tea drinker” to that list, for reasons that’ll be detailed later. She’ll be honored Friday, Jan. 16, with the Muhammad Ali Daughters of Greatness Award.
Nashville resident and Episcopal priest Stevens is the founder of Magdalene, a residential model that serves women recovering from prostitution, trafficking and addiction. She also started Thistle Farms, which employs residents and graduates of Magdalene to manufacture, market and sell all natural bath and beauty products in more than 400 stores nationwide. And most recently, Stevens opened the Thistle Stop Café, where she discovered a connection between her recovering café workers and tea laborers in other countries.
Her newest book, “The Way of Tea and Justice,” is all about that discovery as well as the victories and challenges she had launching the café. She mixes personal stories of her café workers, tea laborers and volunteers whose lives were all transformed by the journey. And each chapter begins with recipes for tea blends, with a sprinkle of historical context for good measure.
It’s a natural fit that Stevens would be honored with the Muhammad Ali Daughters of Greatness Award, since one of the foundational principles is that all people have greatness in them.
“Based on that principle, the Daughters of Greatness breakfast series invites prominent women engaged in social justice, activism and social change to share their stories with the Louisville community while providing a space for public dialogue and discussion on current issues of concern,” says Erin Herbert, education manager at the Ali Center. “Through Magdalene and Thistle Farms, Becca Stevens is providing the opportunity, the healing and the resources for dozens of women who have faced a lifetime of oppression and violence, to actualize their greatness. Her impact is exponential.”
Insider caught up with Stevens by telephone to find out more about her story and what message she plans on sharing with Louisville on Friday.
Stevens says philanthropy has always been in her blood — her father was an Episcopal priest and her mom was a nurse and social worker — so working in the community and having compassion isn’t far from how she was living as a young child. In a tragic series of events, Stevens’ father was killed by a drunk driver when she was just 5, and a year later, the man who came to the church to replace her father started to sexually abuse her.
“For most kids, that kind of tragedy opens the door to predators, and I was no different,” she says. “I think, in some ways, that set the tone for both struggles and passion for women walking the streets. I didn’t know it at the time, but on average, the women I would end up serving were first raped between ages 7-11. My abuse started at the age of 6.”
Stevens is quick to add she doesn’t try to compare her story with what her women have gone through — for most of them, their experiences are much more violent and traumatic. And a lot of them didn’t have the resources she had. “I had a loving mother and great siblings supporting me,” she says.
Stevens opened the first Magdalene community house in 1997. She wanted to offer a peaceful sanctuary for women to come in off the streets and have a free place to live. After a few years, she realized that while the women were doing amazing work in recovery, they were still poor when it was time to go. And as long as they were still in the grips of poverty, she says, they were vulnerable to abusive men and to relapse. “We’ve learned that women relapse over relationships before they relapse over a drug.”
That’s when Thistle Farms was born — a social enterprise where women could work and earn a wage so they could move from underneath a bridge to buying their own home.
“Women do recover — that’s the good news,” says Stevens. “The stories of trafficking, the stories of abuse of kids is a big and old and horrible story. But the stories of women and how they recover in communities like Thistle Farms is a great, hopeful story that people want to hear.”
Founded in 2001, Thistle Farms employs 50 residents and graduates of Magdalene and houses a line of natural body care products, a paper and sewing studio, the Thistle Stop Café, and the Shared Trade initiative linking 14 women’s social enterprises around the globe. You can find Thistle Farms products here in Louisville at Whole Foods, Yew Dell Gardens and Mercantile on Main.
Stevens has thousands of stories of women she’s helped throughout the years, but she recalls one of a woman name Shana, who was sold by her mother to a drug dealer at the age of 13 and was trafficked for years. Shana came into Thistle Farms as part of the sales team, and although she had dropped out of school in the sixth grade, she easily picked up computer skills and all the elements of sales.
“She says what she learned was that she was smart,” Stevens says. “The biggest lie she had been told her entire life was that she was stupid. People needed her to believe she was stupid to keep her oppressed. To learn she was capable and smart was her most important step toward freedom.”
Shana now manages a spreadsheet of more than 400 stores.
Stevens also recalls a heartfelt comment made by a woman working in the shipping department last Christmas when she went to the warehouse to see how things were running. The woman was eager to greet her and asked her to come outside to look at something. “I walked outside on this beautiful December morning, and she showed me her new car. She said, ‘This is my first legal car!’ That’s a funny little adjective to add in there.”
Most of the women at Magdalene and Thistle Farms are from the Tennessee area, and a handful come from all over the country. Currently she has a waiting list of 100 women, and she’s hoping to inspire other communities to open similar models of Magdalene. Right now there are about 20 nationwide.
“That’s why we are dedicated to the education and training part of our program. That’s why I really want to come to Louisville, and that’s why I really want to talk to you,” she stresses. “There’s so many ways for people in Louisville to be involved in this movement of women’s freedom. Having all kinds of communities open up this model of housing for women — it works! For me, all of us being advocates and all of us being on the same page — we can build this as a movement.”