Since 1997, Thistle Farms has been helping women in the Nashville community and beyond. Founded by Becca Stevens with the idea to open a sanctuary for women survivors of trafficking, addiction and prostitution, Thistle Farms has grown into a justice social enterprise that provides jobs to survivors.
While Stevens had the concept to create a sanctuary for female survivors for several years, it was the innocent question from her young son that made her follow through on that mission. The mother to singer-songwriter Levi Hummon, Stevens recalls a life-altering moment over two decades ago while trying to get her son into his car seat. Then a young child, Levi noticed a huge sign outside a local strip club and asked his mother why the woman was smiling. Dressed in a skimpy cat suit with cat ears, a tail, and a seductive grin, the female’s demeanor combined with Stevens’ son’s innocent remark struck a chord with her.
“When my son asked me that question, I thought it was kind of sad and sweet,” she tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone. “Someday he’s not going to ask that question. He’s going to see that this fades into the landscape of how we dress women up and sell them like commodities and ask them to smile the whole time.
“It was that day I decided I need to go take this idea of what a sanctuary could look like for women and just do it — no matter what,” Stevens continues. “Sometimes all of us have beautiful ideas, but we need a kick in the rear to get going. That was mine. It took a couple more years and we opened up a house in Sylvan Park and invited five women to come in. I wanted to work alongside the women in a powerful way, not in a way where you’re just giving them a sandwich or saying a prayer, but to say, ‘Let’s do this together and figure out what love looks like.’”
Since Thistle Farms opened its doors more than two decades ago, the company has grown into a global movement for women’s freedom. Today, there are more than 350 beds around the country that have adopted the company’s model with 36 global partners in 20 countries. Last year, $4 million was earned through the products created by female survivors at the company’s Nashville manufacturing site.
“It’s a love story, really,” says Stevens, who had a history of sexual abuse as a child and knows firsthand the damage it can do to someone’s life. “The whole thing is about gratitude and love. Seeing the beauty in the brokenness … I’ve always loved making things. It has been part of my healing. Part of my expression of my humanity is arts and crafts projects.”
Stevens says it was a natural decision for Thistle Farms to make something healing for the body since 100% of the women she works with had experienced sexual assault. An early adopter of creating organic and locally made products, Thistle Farms has grown in a way that shows the world the possibility of combining justice work with high quality products.
Popular items made at Thistle Farms include healing oils, body bombs and candles, with products sold at 400 stores across the country. The candle serves as a source of light for the organization and the women it helps. As Stevens explains, a single candle can cut a path through the darkest night. “In the midst of a lot of darkness, if we have a tiny bit of light, you can find your way. So that makes sense to me,” Stevens says.
Stevens started Thistle Farms with a mission to help women and grew the company to include a cafe as well as a body and home line of products. As with many organizations, Covid-19 has changed the way Thistle Farms is currently running with Stevens having to pivot the operation.
“We have weathered the storm so far with much grace. At the beginning of the pandemic, we shut down completely except for the essential products we make that we can continue to make and mail out around the country, which saved us,” she says. “The cafe shut down, our residential programs became very, very insular to not spread anything, but we have such a strong base, so many nice and kind owners that we were able to make up the deficit.”
With a new perspective from one of the women in the program who noted, “I’m not stuck at home, I’m safe at home,” Thistle Farms adopted the same mindset when approaching certain product lines and continuing safety for its women.
“The problems we’ve encountered include some of the triggers that happen for the women that we serve who are first raped around the age of nine-years-old and first hit the streets around 15. There’s a lot of triggers in their lives around that trauma,” Stevens explains. “For some of the women, wearing masks reminds them of being gagged.”
To not instill a fear of wearing masks, Thistle Farms has been careful about how to present the idea. Stevens says by putting essential oils inside each mask, it can feel like a spa day to women instead of suffocation. This is just one of the ways Thistle Farms is changing the narrative during quarantine.
“When the whole country is screaming ‘I can’t breathe!’ because of all the racial injustices inherent in the system, we had to look again about making sure everyone felt safe in our community and that the racism, even within our own community, is dealt with in a loving and compassionate way so people were not triggered and angered,” she adds. “There’s a lot of ranting in our country right now, and there’s a lot of stress in our country and we’re not immune to that. My big pivot during this time has been about doing some deep remembering: how we came together and what are some of the oldest lessons about what love looks like and teaching that, speaking that into people that we’re safe, we’re good. We’ve got months of this ahead of us. It’s not going to be an easy road, but we’re equipped to walk it together.”
Stevens credits much of the recognition of Thistle Farms to the country community. Many artists have selected the non-profit as its charity of choice, including the late John Prine who made it one of his beneficiaries after his death to Covid-19 earlier this year. Additional supporters include Stevens’ husband, songwriter Marcus Hummon, as well as Amy Grant, Brandi Carlile, Desmond Child, Jason Isbell, Jeff Hanna, Jennifer Nettles, Kelly Clarkson, Matraca Berg, Ruby Amanfu and Trisha Yearwood.
“We don’t do an event without artists singing before women speak,” Stevens says. “We always integrate those two because I think part of how people can hear our story is through music.”
While Covid-19 lingers for the unforeseeable future, all of Stevens’ speaking engagements have been canceled. Now with some downtime, she is working on her next book which promises to include “bold, practical advice” and countless stories. “It’s going to be full of ideas about how we do act in love step by step. Not trying to achieve perfection, but recognize the divine and what it is we’re doing,” she says.
“For me right now, everything is clouded by the reality of our pandemic that’s crawling through 2020. My advice is small has never been so beautiful and to celebrate the small acts that we’re able to do during this time: We don’t have to grow big. We can grow small; we can grow slow,” she continues. “I feel like when everybody has masks on you almost feel like you have to shout to be heard. But the truth is that sometimes in a whisper, you hear something that speaks to your heart.”