Podcast

Episode 47 – Becca Stevens, Founder of Thistle Farms

Following the death of her father and subsequent child abuse when she was five, Becca Stevens dedicated herself to creating a loving community for survivors. In 1997 she opened Thistle Farms. Thistle Farms is a women’s residence that provides free housing, medical care, therapy and education. In addition, the Global Market of Thistle Farms helps employ more than 1,800 women worldwide. This week, Jessica and Becca have an honest, funny, and inspiring conversation about what it looks like to restart your life and turn tragedy into healing.

becca stevens

Jessica: Hey everyone, it’s Jessica Honegger, founder of the socially conscious fashion brand, Noonday Collection. And this is the Going Scared Podcast," where we cover all things social impact, entrepreneurship and courage.
I’m laughing because our guest today is Becca Stevens. In our entire interview she thought the podcast was called Going Sacred. And I think she was really confused why we weren’t talking about spirituality and sacred things. So, you’re gonna love this conversation.

Becca is such a kindred spirit. She is the founder and president of Thistle Farms. Thistle Farms provides handcrafted natural bath, body, home products made by women survivors. And they do three things. They have a residential program. They’re based in Nashville, Tennessee, that provides housing, food, health care, therapy, and education without charging residents.

And residents and graduates of their residential program are employed in one of their social enterprises. And if you have not discovered their products yet, you’ve got to go head on over to Thistle Farms to purchase some oils, or lotion, or bath salt. It’s just some beautiful, beautiful products. Becca is also a speaker. She is an Episcopal priest, and she is an author. And we talk a little bit about her book called Love Heals. I can’t wait for you to give this show a listen.

I would love to hear from you, tell us: what is Thistle Farms.

 

Thistle Farms: More Mission Than Business

Becca: OK. Well, here’s the crazy thing, Jessica, is that I heard it said better what Thistle Farms is than I ever have in a Instagram where Katie Couric featured one of our products. And it was really fun to read somebody else’s take on it because in my mind I’m so close to it that I forget what it is. But this is what she said we were, and so I’m gonna go with this just for today because also Katie Couric gave me three hearts on Instagram. I just wanna say that.

Jessica: Oh girl. That is the best when that happens.

Becca: "Globally-minded social enterprise led by women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. They offer hope and healing through sanctuary, community, and employment. Every purchase directly benefits the women who make these handcrafted natural body and home products. Their motto is ‘Love heals every body.’"

Jessica: I love it. OK, so what you have to do now is you take that and put that on your website.

Becca: Oh, we should. That’s a good point.

Jessica: Yes, yes. I love that when an outsider is looking in and is able to distill who you are. Because I know, and I’m sure, you know, we’ve had this problem at Noonday, we’re a little bit of a complex brand because we have the social mission, and it’s fair trade, and we’re a B Corp, but we’re also direct sales. We resell through this network of social entrepreneurs in America called Ambassadors. And honestly, it’s a struggle for us to sometimes just consolidate that into one sentence that really captures the heart of a customer. Have you guys had that issue as you kind of try to share more about your brand?

Becca: Yeah, we totally have that issue of, like, how do you explain a movement about women’s freedom that sells products, houses survivors, and networks and does all these things? And the way I heard it said is somebody said, "Every time you tell somebody one of your stories, it’s like you’re handing them a bowling ball."

So if you’re telling them, like, five things, it’s overwhelming and they can’t handle it. And so, what is the story? So that’s when I try to say, you know, "Thistle Farms is a community of women survivors that believe in hope and healing."

Jessica: I love that.

Becca: That’s what we are and that’s what we’re trying to, you know, do. But I think you’ve done it really, really well. I think you get your message out there as clearly as I’ve seen.

Jessica: Really?

Becca: Yes.

Jessica: Oh, gosh, that means a lot. That really does. You know, we’re extra critical.

Becca: And we’re living in that age where everybody is a marketing freaking expert.

Jessica: Yeah, it’s so true.

Becca: And it’s, like, they’re gonna give you, "Here’s your storyboard. Here’s your four points. Here’s your action plan. Here’s this." And it’s, like, "I cannot sit down and talk about that anymore. I just gotta go do the work I like."

Jessica: Just gotta do it. You’re a doer, you’re a doer.

Becca: And the thing is, in the end, it’s kinda crazy, like, OK, so I started off with the Katie Couric quote. And she had posted a picture of our body scrub on Sunday morning. Nobody in our team gave it to her. Like, we have no idea. So it’s like if you just keep doing it, sometimes it just works.

Jessica: Yes, yes, yes. I want every person listening to this that runs a business or is starting a business, entrepreneur, you know, I think we live in such an Insta society where people think, "Oh, well, I sent a product once to that person," or, "I haven’t made it to that yet," but, I mean, you have been at this. How long have you actually been selling products?

Because that’s what I find so interesting about what you are doing is there’s a lot of people working in anti-human trafficking efforts, thank God, but you are one of the few that has created a beauty brand, a wellness brand, and have really just made this beautiful tie-in to freedom and what you’re doing with the body. I mean, because you’re bringing freedom to women, women’s bodies. You’re bringing wholeness to our bodies through your products. Which came first, the beauty or the anti-trafficking?

“You’re bringing freedom to women, women’s bodies. You’re bringing wholeness to our bodies through your products.” Jessica Honegger to Becca Stevens on what Thistle Farms does for women.

Becca: We opened our first sanctuary, meaning a house that you can live in free for two years with no authority in the house, to find all the healing and space that you need for women who are survivors of trafficking, addiction, prostitution, in 1997. So, a long time ago. It was about four years in that I was, like, "These women are heroic, they’re powerful, they’re creative."

I mean, and they have some serious skills. I mean, maybe they were a chemist on the street, you know, making meth, maybe they were amazing sales folks. But it’s like they are poor as dirt. And as long as you’re poor, you’re gonna go back. You’re gonna go back to the really dangerous places, to the dangerous men.

And it was about 2000 that we started thinking about starting. And there wasn’t the word social enterprise back then. We used to call it … I think they called it women’s enterprises. I don’t know why. It’s like … anyway. So, we started making just body balms and candles. About 2001, we started. So, it’s been going on for about 18 years.

Jessica: Wow, 18 years. And see, now, Katie, now we got Katie.

Becca: Yeah. Well, now it’s crazy because … we had a party two nights ago to celebrate graduates from the program, and that means women who went through and graduated the two-year program. The room was packed, I mean, with women who came back. That doesn’t represent all of the graduates, that means people who wanted to come back and celebrate with their sisters.

And it was this huge party where … I mean, dancing, and laughing, and eating, and joyful of this life. And I was thinking, "OK, that’s why you stay in it and do this work for so long is you see, like …" You know, this power—it’s so big. And so many of them have families and children and new lives and think about all the people it impacts. It’s thousands and thousands of people.

Jessica: It is. Well, and you think about the women now and the lives they just touch throughout the day. And now, they’re walking in their own power and in their own worth. And that’s transforming in and of itself, not just to the families but just to now owning their worth and to being change-makers themselves in their communities. It’s awesome. So, tell us a little bit about that. What does the typical woman experience as she progresses through Thistle Farms? Like, break it down on actually how it works, the program works.

 

Moving Out to Moving In—Moving In to Moving On

Becca: So, women come in, they might come directly from prison, they might come from the streets, they might be referred by a family member from … I mean, we’ve had referrals from, I believe, every state in our nation, every state. And we’re talking about including Hawaii and Alaska. They call from all over. There’s about 100 women on the waiting list right now. Right, so now, we have about 220 beds around the country, so we can do referrals, and we can help gather people.

But the programs are the same wherever women end up. And that’s … you get a key and we say, "Welcome home." And for the first several months you don’t work. You can go to IOP, meaning intensive outpatient therapy. You can go to the rape and sexual assault center. You can go to computer training courses. You can go to GED class. I mean, whatever … go to a doctor, go to a dentist. You know, you start getting your body back, which is one of the best things in the world because that really is about … you know, so long people bifurcate their bodies from their minds. And, just say, "You’re gonna be safe here. You can be in your body and we’re gonna help heal your body." That’s what we start with. And your mind shall follow. You come along with.

So, it’s the idea, for me at least, it’s, like, you have to be safe to do the healing work. There’s no post-traumatic stress disorder in prison because there’s no post trauma. It’s still trauma. So, you get a lot of time just to say, "You know, I think what I really need is blank," and then we try to find it. And then people start making restitution with their families and the courts. They go to work. Mostly, at Thistle Farms, on average, the women that we serve are first raped between the ages of 7 and 11, and first take the streets between about 14 and 16 years old. So, working a real job is not really an option for many of the women. So, you come to Thistle Farms, and it’s a really safe place to learn about working again.

And we have … I think, six of the departments are led by graduates of the program. So, they do all the training. Graduates who have come through, they do all the sales. They do … you know, we have a cafe. A lot of people come in and learn to be baristas, or sous chefs, or whatever. And all that training and waiting tables, manufacturing, logistics, it all happens from graduates.

So then the whole first year is spent on healing. And then the second whole year is spent on what does it look like to live independently. And so, we have a matched savings program, and we have really beautiful classes about coping with living and what triggers are. You know, just everything you might need.

“The whole first year is spent on healing. And then the second whole year is spent on what does it look like to live independently. And so, we have a matched savings program, and we have really beautiful classes about coping.” Becca Stevens on programs at Thistle Farms.

Jessica: Wow. And when you think about the social enterprise piece of Thistle Farms … I mean, I know the pressure of what it is to want create as many jobs as possible. And is that …

 

Justice Enterprise: The Workforce Is the Mission

Becca: Well, I’m just gonna say this real quick. So, and I don’t know if this resonates with what you’re doing or not, but I think social enterprise is this really broad vague term, and I’ve really started using the word justice enterprise instead. I mean, what kinda enterprise isn’t social? So social kind of seems …

Jessica: It’s kind of a diluted word, I have to say. I’m, like, "Social? Like, what does that even mean?"

Becca: But justice enterprise, for me, means when the women are the mission, the workforce is the mission. So, we’re not a social enterprise, like you and me are getting together and we’re bottling water, and then we’re gonna send 5% of the profits to Africa, which is great. That might be a social enterprise. But a justice enterprise is one in which the workforce is the mission.

Jessica: Let’s coin it. Let’s coin it.

Becca: Let’s do it. Let’s hash tag it right now.

Jessica: Let’s do it, because that is what we do. And I, for years … because when we started Noonday, TOMS was at sort of having a real moment. And everyone got the “One for One” model but they couldn’t … like, it’s just taken a lot of explaining to say, "No, we’re not giving back. We’re creating jobs. We’re creating dignified jobs. We’re creating healing communities around the world."

People have been exploited, have been beat down, where jobs have never gotten paid, have not had opportunity. And we’re creating opportunity through work. And that is what gets me so excited. That’s what thrills me is that you see so much restoration happen through the dignity of a job. And is that, ultimately, what you’re wanting to do is create as many jobs as possible for these women that graduate from your program?

Becca: I mean, that’s the whole thing is—I mean, I really do believe that the violence of poverty is unbelievable. And you hear the stories … I’m heading to Rwanda, January 2nd, and when I go, I’m gonna hear the same stories I hear in Nashville, Tennessee, that I hear in Dallas, that I hear in Ecuador. And it’s like, people prey on the vulnerable and on the poor.

And one of the best things we can do if you wanna really support women who are living a life after Me Too is create jobs, create really beautiful jobs where women have choices about what they wear, where they go, how they raise their children, and it’s not all dependent on a relationship.

“People prey on the vulnerable and on the poor. And one of the best things we can do if you wanna really support women who are living a life after Me Too is create jobs, create really beautiful jobs where women have choices about what they wear, where they go, how they raise their children, and it’s not all dependent on a relationship.” Becca Stevens on the power of dignified work.

Jessica: Yes. The economic empowerment is absolutely what rises women out of poverty and into freedom.

Becca: Preach it, say it again.

Jessica: Yes. And I don’t know if you’ve read Locust Effect by Gary Haugen, but that is the whole premise is violence against the poor, that ultimately, that is the root issue. And, man, that’s a powerful read. I have a son from Rwanda, so I love that you’re going in January.

Becca: I love Rwanda. I love it. It’s such an amazing, amazing place.

Jessica: It’s special. It really is.

Becca: And that was one of our first global partners. It was a group of women who were making essential oils right outside of Kigali. And it was about 2008 was our first trip. And we didn’t know what the heck we were doing on a lot of stuff but we fell in love with the women, so we started our partnership then. And they supply our lemongrass oil, our eucalyptus, our geranium, which is a bug spray, and our … oh, patchouli, which is making a huge comeback because it’s so good for your skin.

Jessica: Well, that’s what I was gonna say. My design team just went to LA on a trending trip, and they came back and gave me the little presentation and one of those huge takeaways is how oils just continue to skyrocket. Have you seen that trend in your sales?

Becca: Yes. Yes, it’s crazy. So, we’re doing three new blends this next year because … OK, so a friend of mine who owns … her name is Woo Caroland and she owns Woo, and that she has, like, four stores, New York, Atlanta, Nashville, and Dallas, I think. I can’t really remember. But she said that two years ago that her sales were about 70% make-up and about 30% skincare. And within two years it’s totally flipped, and now it’s 70% skincare and 30% make-up.

Jessica: It’s crazy. And I feel like it used to be, like, department store. Right? It was like Estee Lauder and Clinique. And now, I mean, people are buying from independent brands, from boutiques. You know what I mean? I don’t feel like there’s this huge brand loyalty. I think people are more loyal to this idea of putting natural oils onto their skin.

Becca: And moringa oil as the carrier oil, and patchouli oil. I mean, forget about it.

Jessica: It’s amazing. Yes, one of my friends, they’d worked in Rwanda for a long time, and they brought me back some oils from Rwanda a few years ago, and that’s all I used for a couple of years. And I ran out, now I need to get them from you, I guess.

Becca: Oh, my gosh, we don’t sell the moringa oil. We sell moringa, and we sell it in a tea, and we sell it in a bath salt. You can soak in moringa. And ours comes from a group of women in Mexico. I mean, moringa grows all over the world and you can get moringa oil in, like, a lot of places. But the group of women in Mexico … I mean there’s a huge growing market near Guadalajara, six million people in that community, about. You know, moringa is so good for your skin and the leaves are so nutritious. It’s the new superfood. There was an article in The New York Times, "Move over Kale."

Jessica: Yes, when I travel I see it everywhere. Yeah, it’s awesome.

Becca: It is. So I don’t think it’s just, like, the U.S. awakening to this. I think it’s a global thing.

Jessica: Yes, yes. OK, I love that you have … you started with this very local mission, which I wanna hear the story behind that story of how that even began, but I also love that you have embraced a global mission as well. I know something that I personally have to fight against, just for me, but I don’t think you do, I think that you are full of love and freedom and all sorts of things.

 

Finding Abundance in Community

But sometimes just this idea of, because, you know, we work so hard to create jobs and work really among the suffering and the vulnerable, that sometimes I’ve had to really fight to always keep embracing more issues and not have a scarcity mentality. Like, "My heart can only handle this," like, "I can’t also take on this." Am I making sense to you?

Becca: Yes.

Jessica: OK. And I just don’t see that in you. I see you just living in this very abundance mindset. Can you tell me about that?

Becca: Well, I don’t have a ton to say. I think the antidote is community, that we were talking about justice a little bit ago, and I do think that justice is not an individual sport. And so, it’s not on any of us, and if we have a beautiful community, then it’s on us together, and it’s a joy. And that’s the only way I can explain it. Now, if you’re asking me do I get tired or burn out? You know, I think there’s this other weird thing that I’ve noticed over the last few years, where people think you have to be inspired to do the work. And I think why put that pressure on ourselves?

“Justice is not an individual sport. And so, it’s not on any of us, and if we have a beautiful community, then it’s on us together, and it’s a joy.” Becca Stevens

You know, it’s like if you’re a farmer, nobody cares, "Are you inspired to go milk the cow?" It’s just, like, "Go milk the freaking cow. Water the plant, tend the fields." And that’s what we’re doing. We’re out doing the job. And it’s, like, I have learned to trust that if I keep doing the job, inspiration comes. It comes in waves, and I’m grateful when it comes but I don’t panic anymore when I’m thinking, "Oh, my God, I have to go to Thistle Farms today."

People feel that sometimes. It’s OK. For all of us. It’s life. And it’s, like, just the other day when I was at work, just minding my own business, and a woman started talking to me who’d been there since April, and she said, "Do you know that today I opened my refrigerator and got my milk out of it? And I gave thanks." And she said, "You know, I spent the last seven years in prison. This is my first Christmas, and I have my refrigerator. And I get on my cell phone and check my balance in my account, and pour milk into coffee." And I was, like, "I’m good to go for the day."

Jessica: So powerful.

Becca: You know, because it’s not that complicated. It’s, like, we do this work, we love women, and then sometimes we get to bask in this gratitude or in this insight someone gives us. And some days we don’t, some days people complain about stuff and you think, "OK. Just another day, just another day." But it comes. It really does.

 

Becoming a Noonday Ambassador

Jessica: Hey, friends. I am gonna interrupt this awesome conversation for a hot second. You guys know that I am the founder of the socially-conscious fashion brand Noonday Collection. And at Noonday, we are passionate about entrepreneurship that changes the world. So, we partnered with Noonday Collection Ambassadors. Ambassadors launched their own social impact businesses. They earn an income and they make a difference for the artisan families that we partner with all over the world. And right now, I am sitting with an Ambassador, Laura. Laura, I wanna hear more about your Ambassador journey. Tell me what first drew you into wanting to start your own Noonday Collection business as an Ambassador.

Laura: Yeah. Well, I had heard about you and known friends who were doing Noonday. But at that time in my life, my husband and I had just brought home our third child through adoption. We had two other children, so all of our kids three, five, and, seven. And we just learned that my oldest was going to need some special kind of situations that were gonna lead us into a private school, which i.e. means lots of money.

And so, at that time, I really wanted to stay home with our kids but I knew that with the private school funding was gonna be a little bit of an issue and I knew I needed a job. But I also needed a job that was right for me. And I loved that Noonday was not only an income, but it was also social impact and it was also flexible.

Jessica: And tell me a little bit about the impact that your Ambassador business has had on your family.

Laura: In the beginning, I think my kids were maybe a little sad when I would take off for a trunk show or something. But I think within maybe six months they were cheering me on, excited about my business, asking me about it when I got home, realizing that I was not just going to work but I was also helping people on the other side of the globe, and just seeing them connect the dots that this job is really changing the world.

Jessica: And have you been able to fund your kid in private school?

Laura: You know what, Jessica?

Jessica: What?

Laura: I just did the numbers and three kids in private education, and I was able to fund all three this year for the first time.

Jessica: OK, I’m crying. I’m crying on my own podcast advertisement. I cannot help myself. It’s so inspiring.

Laura: It’s so sweet.

Jessica: It’s so inspiring. You guys, if you’re hearing this and you’re, like, "Oh, my gosh, I wanna change the world. I wanna travel. I need an income to help my family, to help with additional income demands on my family," I want you to join us as a Noonday Collection Ambassador. Go on over to goingscared.noondaycollection.com, join this incredible journey with us. Head on over to goingscared.noondaycollection.com. We would love to have you in our community of world-changing sisters.

 

Rituals of Love: Practical, Daily, and Relevant

I love that your book—your amazing, beautiful, by the way. I love how it really speaks to rituals. So, I love now that we started talking about this whole idea of long-term sustainability, just doing the work. And sometimes it does feel like a grind. But your book Love Heals really talks about healing rituals, and I’d love for you to talk a little bit about how those rituals correlate with you being able to just get up and do the work, day after day, because certainly there is a correlation.

Becca: Absolutely. And I’m sure…I’d love to hear some of your rituals too. But for me, it was, like, you know, if you think, like, the ritual has to be, "I have to go climb Mount Kilimanjaro and go talk to a guru and do seven days of silence in the mountains of California." It’s, like, "OK, no one can do all that stuff." So how do we make it practical and daily, and relevant? That’s my criteria for a good ritual. And so practical for me means very short stuff, things I can do and fit into my day.

And relevant means that I think, for me, it has to have something to do with where I am. Like, my rituals now aren’t the same rituals as when I was 25 or when I had little kids, when I had bigger kids, my rituals looked different. You know, and daily means you do it, you just keep doing it and know that they are gonna carry you through the bad and good times. So ritual, for me, can mean anything from I have a cup of justice tea in the morning made by women who are, you know, survivors and the tea is healing, and it’s beautiful.

I put oils on me. You know, use the oils from Rwanda, it will feel very different than other oils that you’ve used. It’s amazing. I might light a candle. I might take a bath and put some really great bath salts in there, but really stuff that’s pretty practical and simple. And the last one that I would say that I do religiously, meaning disciplining, is that I take walks. And so I’m usually … like, most of my stories about when I’ve started new projects start with, "I was taking a walk in the woods." Yet somehow that opens my mind.

Jessica: Yes. It’s the physical connection with the mind. I mean, it’s what we started off with. You know, like, we, especially in the West, have really divided our bodies from our minds. But it’s that integration that I think is where we do discover inspiration. So practical, daily, and relevant. And I love how you said that some of your rituals, they change according to sort of the season of life that we’re in. And I think that gives people a lot of freedom because I think sometimes we have our rituals, and then we stop them often. Right?

“It’s the physical connection with the mind. I mean, it’s what we started off with. You know, like, we, especially in the West, have really divided our bodies from our minds. But it’s that integration that I think is where we do discover inspiration.” Jessica Honegger on rituals.

I mean, it’s hard to commit every single day, day after day. So, I’m curious when you sort of realized, "You know what? That ritual, I’ve outgrown it," or, "I’m in a new season." How do you kind of keep sort of a … because momentum is often what helps us with habits, and that can sometimes stop the momentum. What do you do to sort of restart or evaluate, "Are these rituals still working for me? And maybe I do need to change it up a little bit"?

Becca: Yeah, I think it’s like being awake. Right? It’s like being awake into where you are. And so if it starts not making any sense and you’re just doing it because it is … there is a momentum, there is a habit. And then it’s, "I feel like I’m really ready to try to do yoga." I mean, it could just come to you. And then it’s, like, "OK. I’m gonna incorporate this," and then something else kind of gracefully slips away.

But I went through, like, a very serious period where … I mean, it was yoga, that was my go-to place. And then I was on the road so much that it felt like … I felt guilty that I wasn’t going to any yoga classes. I might’ve been stretching in a hotel room a little bit, but anyway. And then it’s, like, "OK. Well, this is ridiculous that I’m beating myself up and feeling bad about myself, and I’m really just working, and I’m on the road trying to do what I do. So maybe I can do this and come up with something else. You know, maybe it’s walking or maybe, you know, it’s …" You know, there’s just a lot of different ways to say, "I can make some space for this season in my life where I’m in airports, and I look ridiculous if I’m trying to do yoga.

Jessica: I’ve seen it happen.

Becca: I know. It takes a lot more ego strength than I have to do that.

Jessica: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I think I had a huge travel season a few months ago when I launched my book, and it does often do disrupt my rituals and I’ve had to kind of come back to them now that I’m in a little bit more of an ordinary life now. And I do find that I need to come up sort of with rituals for the road, and then rituals for my Austin life, because it’s a different rhythm.

Becca: It is a different rhythm and it’s, like, "OK, so …" You’re, like, "What is home, and what is ritual when you’re …?" Anyway, I think sometimes, you know, roadwork is both easier and harder for me. Because I don’t have to do the 10 meetings when I’m on the road, so in some ways I have more space. But also, it’s exhausting and you kind of gotta go … like, you live by somebody else’s…

Jessica: Schedule.

Becca: … schedule. Anyway, it’s a weird life.

 

Being Awake

Jessica: It is, it is. It is weird. And I have a lot of joy in both, and that’s what’s challenging. But you said "being awake," and I wanna hear a little bit more. When did you first awake to this idea that you could be the solution to the problems that you saw?

Becca: Oh, God. You know, I would say that my husband would say that there’s some nights he comes home and I’m watching Law & Order, sipping a beer, and I’m not awake at all. But he knows that’s been a kind of rough day.

Jessica: Right. He’s like, "Uh-oh. Okay, I’m gonna give her massage right now."

Becca: He’s, like, "If Law & Order’s on, something bad’s happened.’"

Jessica: I’m surprised you go to Law & Order. It seems like it would hit a little too close to home.

Becca: I know. I think it’s just retraumatizing me. I don’t know what the deal is.

Jessica: Let’s find another thing to binge on for you.

Becca: I know. I know. I’m just … Oh, anyway, that is … I probably shouldn’t have even said that. But I’m thinking that I had this experience in my life where I woke up, when I really woke up, I was completely asleep, and then I was startled awake and I was five years old. And I remember it as clearly as anything. And my dad, he was a priest, he was an Episcopal priest, and he and my mom moved to South. She’s 35 years old with five kids.

And that year that they moved to Nashville from New York, he was killed by a drunk driver. And it was my mom’s birthday, and it was this startling into awakehood where you remember what people were wearing, what people were saying, the whole thing. Because I don’t think I ever really fell back asleep. Like, I mean, went back into my childhood. After that, there was several other traumas that happened, including some sexual abuse that went on for several years with one of the elders in the church. And I think it’s crazy, but I think I always knew, like, this isn’t my story, what I’m witnessing is really bad, and it’s messed up, and I’m scared. All those things.

But I always knew that my story was a different story, that it was a love story. I knew it. I mean, I knew it, and I think my mom was this amazing, strong, beautiful woman who loved me, and I think I wanted to be kind of like her. And she was very, very, very awake person. So, it sounds weird but I think I knew, you know, from a little girl’s age that I was gonna be doing justice work with the community.

“I always knew that my story was a different story, that it was a love story. I knew it … it sounds weird but I think I knew, you know, from a little girl’s age that I was gonna be doing justice work with the community.” Becca Stevens on becoming awake.

Jessica: And amazing that you were able to hold tight to that narrative, even in spite of being exploited yourself. And I often find that women that are very passionate about female empowerment have often experienced deep disempowerment in their own lives, and we often end up teaching what we need to learn.

Becca: And what’s more powerful, in a way, than taking brokenness and having it turn to some compassion for others. And then you feel like, you know, "I got your back. You can do this because I’m standing with you and …" You know, and it’s, like, "I’ve gotten through this. Come on, let’s go. We can do it." And it gives you some cred too.

Jessica: Yes, it gives you so much cred. And I imagine you’ve seen that same transformation in the women that you work with, and then now they’re paying it back to the other women as well.

Becca: Yes. And don’t you think, too, for you … I don’t know about maybe … but, like, the bigger and the more that your brand gets out there, the more your story gets out there, the more you’re on the road telling the story—it’s almost like you get more embolden to believe what you always believed anyway.

“The more your story gets out there, the more you’re on the road telling the story—it’s almost like you get more embolden to believe what you always believed anyway.” Becca Stevens

Jessica: Yeah, I think there’s something beautiful about having to … it’s like an almost accountability to your potential. Because you’re sitting there sharing these things or sharing these stories. And to me, it’s like this public accountability to keep living into that.

Becca: Yes. And people trust you more because now you’ve got…I mean, you have been living into it. It’s not just that you’re gonna live into it and you’re accountable to … you already have proven what it does. And so, it’s like you can trust yourself and others can trust you too.

Jessica: So good. OK, so you have three sons. I wanna hear a little bit more about how their life was impacted by growing up with a mom whose platform and passion is to bring love and empowerment to women who have been exploited themselves. How do you see that play out?

 

Thistle Farms and Motherhood

Becca: So I have three boys and I have a husband who’s a singer-songwriter in Nashville, Tennessee, named Marcus Hummon. And so, my kids were raised with lots of creativity in the house, writing, music. And our oldest son, when he was four years old the whole thing with Thistle Farms started. My husband had a record deal, at that point. He was on the road. And I had a four-year-old, and I was pregnant with my second child, and I wanted to start this community for women but it was, like, "Who has the freaking time to do it? Nobody." You know, it’s, like, "Argh."

So I was going downtown to do a feeding program, which is really stressful in many ways because, I know women on the streets are raped. I mean, I haven’t met a woman in the last two decades, coming off the streets, who hasn’t been raped. Never met one. Anyway, so it’s a stressful thing, but my son was with me. I was trying to get him in the car, and he was doing that thing that four-year-olds do, like, arching his back, so I couldn’t get him in the car.

And I was, like, really pushing, and I realized he’s looking up and that’s why his head’s back and he’s arched. And where the feeding program was, was near a strip club called the Classic Cat, and there was this huge poster of a woman who had just a memory of a cat suit on. And he said when he was looking at that, "Why is that lady smiling?" And that question about broke my heart, and I thought, "Oh, my god. I’m gonna have this boy who someday is not gonna ask this question. It’s gonna seem completely normal to him that we strip women and put them up on billboards and expect them to smile and probably sell them for less than a cat."

And so, that was the day I started Thistle Farms. I got off my rear end and, like, "Who cares if I’m gonna, you know, I’m gonna birth another baby and my husband’s gonna be on the road?" It’s, like, "I’m gonna start this sanctuary that I’ve had in my head for so long." And it was like he grew up. He became a songwriter like his dad. His name is Levi Hummon. He’s exploding on the market. And he came to the cafe at one of our justice enterprises in Nashville, I guess it was last February, and he and his dad wrote a theme song for us called Love Heals, named after the book and the whole motto for Thistle Farms.

And he got Alison Krauss to sing background on it. And then, all these women from Thistle Farms who helped raise him … he was completely raised around the whole community … came and lip-synched in the video with him. It is the most beautiful, sweetest video. But that’s how it’s impacted him, it’s family, it’s community, it’s influenced their artistic and creative voices. It’s been awesome.

Jessica: Do you recall having very explicit conversations with them in regards to sex and the proper treatment of women, and exploitation, pornography, all of those things? Or did it just happen through, well, they just grew up in community around women that came from this and are living differently and … did it just come from community or did it come from … do you remember having some explicit conversations?

Becca: I think both. I mean, I think I have, like every mom, you do your best taking steps at some awkward conversations.

Jessica: Oh, my gosh. I do them. I do them at the most inappropriate times. I have three kids, two of them are boys, and the other day my son, who’s a super creative kid, he’s 10, and he’s, like, "Mommy, you know, it’s so interesting, the imagination, because you can just see things so clearly in your mind. Like, you can think about things and you really see them but they’re not real, but they are real in your mind." And he’s, like, having this sweet moment. I’m like, "Yeah, the mind’s very important. That’s why you have to be careful about what you put in front of your eyes. Let’s talk about pornography," and he looked at me. And I’m, like, "Oh, Jessica, wrong timing."

Becca: That is so funny. That’s awesome, though, because it is, like, you know, you’re trying to both not shame them and protect them and teach them. But I think they get the … I mean, they know you, they know what your expectations are and all that. We all take the steps, as best as we can, at inappropriate times to have those conversations. But I also think your life speaks. Right?

Jessica: Yeah. Within Thistle Farms, you have a program that teaches men how to humanize women. Can you talk just a little bit about that?

Becca: Well, sure. That is the school for men who have been arrested for solicitation. It’s an eight-hour school but it’s like a diversion program. So, if it’s your first arrest for solicitation, it’s a diversion program, so you can pay and you come, and it’s really about humanizing a woman that you were trying to commodify and buy for your own purposes.

And so, women survivors come, people from the public defender’s office come, people from the DA’s office come, people from Sex Anonymous come. And they talk about the difference between legal and safe sex, and illegal and unsafe sex, and about how the sex industry and the drug industry are tied together and what will happen and what the consequences are if your behavior continues.

Jessica: I think that’s so important, Becca. I just don’t hear many people working on this issue that also are addressing the men. Have you seen success in that program?

Becca: Yeah, I think so. I think we have and I think the men are stigmatized too. I mean they’re also … you know, not all. Most of the men are pretty humiliated and angry when they come. And a lot of the men have a backstory too. But the thing I learned the most after doing that school for years was that … you know, everybody has to fill out these data forms. We keep so much data on everybody.

And the majority of men that we were serving are married. And so, one of the things that we helped change is that men were not given HIV/STD testing when they got arrested for solicitation. So, part of our criteria being able to go to the school and have this expunged from your record is that you have to go to the health department and show you’ve been tested, and those test results get sent to your home. Because that’s information that your wife needs, or husband.

 

Writing a Story of Hope and Healing

Jessica: That’s right. Do you find that HIV is still highly stigmatized in the population that you work with, or …?

Becca: Oh, definitely not as much, definitely not as much, because now it’s not a death sentence.

Jessica: No, I mean, it’s just as treatable as diabetes.

Becca: I mean, you’ve traveled all over the world. Are you finding that?

Jessica: It is still stigmatized, and, yes, unfortunately, it is still very stigmatized in Africa in particular. And there are so many programs. And some of the younger kids with the moms that we work with, whose kids have it, they are actually a lot less stigmatized by it and are using it as part of their story. But in a lot of the places where we work, people still wanna keep it pretty secret.

So, part of what we do at Noonday, honestly, is to educate on this. And we’re part of an adoption community here, and we’re around people all the time that have HIV. We might know or we might not know if they have HIV, but I do find that there is still a stigma around it that I would like there to be less of one.

Becca: Yeah, yeah. I think, too, that it’s … one of the things you just said that I think has been true for … and there’s stigma around saying, you know, "I’ve prostituted myself," or, "I’ve been prostituted," or … there’s all kinds of stuff around that too. But what I think is interesting is when people want you to keep stuff a secret. And it’s, like, "No, because this is part of a good news story, and that has to be shared." And, you know, I love it … if part of our missions both of us is, like … OK, the story is a story of hope. There is tragedy in those stories of hope. There is tragedy in the world for sure, that’s heartbreaking, but in the work that we’re doing, it’s a story of hope. And so, you gotta share it, and you can’t let it be …

“OK, the story is a story of hope. There is tragedy in those stories of hope. There is tragedy in the world for sure, that’s heartbreaking, but in the work that we’re doing, it’s a story of hope. And so, you gotta share it, and you can’t let it be …” Becca Stevens

Jessica: Well, in sharing it, you’re no longer defined by your past. I think when you keep it a secret … you know, and I don’t know when you began to share your story of sexual abuse, but even though you think you can never imagine being able to say some of these things out loud, but then you find it’s only in the saying out loud that there’s healing. Speaking even of Rwanda where my dear, dear friend in Rwanda, he’s a genocide survivor, and he hid in a tree and heard his entire family, minus three brothers, get macheted to death.

And he had never shared the story, had so much just shame that he was a survivor and that he heard it happen until meeting me. And we just started talking. I think since I was, you know … I think I was about to say extranjero. I don’t know why I’m speaking in Spanish all of a sudden, but I was a foreigner to him. And so, I think there was a little bit of a safety there. Then his wife came to me two years after he began to just share and talk, and said, "Jessica, I had to come meet you because, since he began sharing his story, he’s healing."

Becca: It’s so good. And I do think that that’s the truth. And I remember when I confronted the man who abused me, when I went to his home and confronted him, his very first question was, "Who have you told?" Because that’s the scariest thing, is to think, "Oh, my gosh, what if it’s not a secret." You know, and I was, like, "Oh, that’s so interesting that that’s his first question." And I was, like, "I’m telling anybody I want." You know, I get why people wanna keep things, you know, that are secret. I get why he wants it a secret. But it’s like, there’s no healing in that.

Jessica: No, no. It just perpetuates.

Becca: Yeah. Well, I love talking to you. I would talk to you forever. You’re the best.

Jessica: I love talking to you too. OK, we wrap up, we always ask our people how … Wait, before that, I just have to share this one small fact with you. My family has a ranch and whenever we hit the gravel road, we turn on the song "Cowboy Take Me Away," which is the song your husband wrote.

Becca: Oh, I love it.

Jessica: So, you’ll have to tell him, you’ll have to tell him. That’s so fun. But we like to wrap up by asking people, "How are you going scared in your life right now?"

Becca: OK, I thought it was "Going Sacred."

Jessica: And you’re, like, "Jessica, we didn’t really talk about spiritually."

Becca: This whole time I thought the name of the podcast was "Going Sacred." That is hysterical, Going Scared. That makes me laugh.

Jessica: Someone else had thought the same thing. You have a bias towards saying the word sacred over scared, see. Here, you go.

 

Going Scared by Growing Older

Becca: Yes. OK, so how I’m going scared, right?

Jessica: Yeah, not sacred. Because that would be a whole other conversation that perhaps my audience would be more interested in hearing, especially since you’re an Episcopal priest. So, I hope I’m not disappointing people right now, but I’m asking you how you’re going scared, not sacred.

Becca: OK. I am going scared in a couple different ways. I think, professionally, I’m going scared because I’m really moving more and more to life on the road and life in different countries and life outside of … I’ve been in the same little chapel for 24 years, and I’m not there very much anymore. And the idea of really moving myself further and further away from it is pretty scary for me because I love the home altar, and I love community.

And the other place, personally, that I’m going scared is that I’m getting older. And I am looking at my body and my face, and I am loving myself, and also, thinking, "Dear Lord, are you kidding me?" And I have to … that’s kinda scary to think, you know, that … you know, they say you die a thousand deaths before your funeral, right? And you have to say goodbye to parts of yourself so you can keep growing, and I think it’s kinda always scary, and you can always grieve it a little bit. So, I think I’m in a place where I’m grieving my younger self. And I’m a little bit scared of this older self. And I’m grateful for it, God, I’m so grateful for it. So, I hope it doesn’t sound like that. But I think it’s, like … you know, getting older is a humbling journey.

“I’m a little bit scared of this older self. And I’m grateful for it, God, I’m so grateful for it. So, I hope it doesn’t sound like that. But I think it’s, like … you know, getting older is a humbling journey.” Becca Stevens on growing older.

Jessica: Do you think it’s exacerbated at all because you work in the beauty industry? I know you don’t see yourself as that, it’s justice. But I mean have you thought about that at all?

Becca: I don’t think so. I think if I was in the industry that my husband and son are in, I would feel that. But, Lord, if you’re with the folks at Thistle Farms, you can feel pretty good about yourself if you have all your teeth.

Jessica: That’s true. That’s true.

Becca: So, no, that’s not it. It is really about this idea of, like, "OK. I can still do a headstand. I can still do a backbend. I’m not doing any more walkovers, that’s gone. And I still dive. I hate flipping off the board." You know, little by little, inch by inch, you can see these things going away. And I don’t know, just this is a season for me where I’m feeling a little bit vulnerable or scared about it.

Jessica: Yeah. I hear ya. My dad got diagnosed with cancer this year, and …

Becca: I’m so sorry.

Jessica: Thank you. But I agree. It’s like, suddenly, I’m feeling very much in this position of now … you know, I call my parents now. I never used to call them. Like, they know. They’re, like … My dad, he and I are like … My mom calls us the los mismos because we are like the same person. And he is a fiery entrepreneur himself, but now he’s really slowed down, and it’s just weird how suddenly the tables can turn. And he’s 76 and … you know, it is … And our culture doesn’t prepare us to embrace aging at all.

Becca: No. No. And so it’s like you just, "Good luck with it."

Jessica: Good luck with that, yeah.

Becca: I mean, if you’re not gonna just … you know, anyway. I just think I love that, and I’m loving that my youngest is 18 now. And so, I feel like that’s a huge milestone. But also, maybe that is … I was thinking, "That’s probably why I’m feeling it too," It’s, like, "OK, now I just have adult children." It’s big.

Jessica: That is big.

You can keep up with Becca and Thistle Farms by heading on over to beccastevens.org. And she is such a powerful speaker, so you should definitely try to find her if she is in a town near you. She is also on Instagram @beccastevens. And she’s awesome, guys. I had such a great time chatting with her today, honestly. I think we could’ve talked for hours and hours and hours.

Before we go, I would love for you to head on over to iTunes and give this podcast a rating. I so appreciate you guys listening. I so appreciate you sharing these episodes with your friends. And we want more and more people to find this content because we want more people living courageous lives, living into their purpose and discovering great people like Becca and her company, Thistle Farms. So, head on over to iTunes, give it a rating.

Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend, Ellie Holcomb, and Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.