But not as president. Yet.
The only reason I haven’t gone on and on about Becca Stevens in these pages yet is that she’s no secret. Can there be anyone left in Nashville who doesn’t already know about Stevens’ groundbreaking work as founder of Magdalene? For those who don’t, here’s the backstory.
I’ve been an admirer for years. I first met Stevens in 2003, when I did a story for Nashville Public Radio about Thistle Farms, a cottage industry Stevens had just founded to help fund the recovery program, and to give Magdalene’s women a safe place to work, a way to belong. A few years later I returned to do another WPLN feature on a book the women wrote together. You can hear them tell their personal, often horrific stories of life on the streets and read excerpts from Find You Way Home here.
Meanwhile, as so often happens, I became more than just a journalist telling a story. I became a fan: of Stevens, of the women who’ve done the hard work to take control of their lives, and of the community they’ve created together, one that transforms everyone it touches, and our city, and maybe even our world.
The first time I interviewed Stevens, I was struck by her rare combination of talents, seemingly engineered to produce the ideal person to do exactly what she does. She’s got all the characteristics you’d expect of an Episcopal priest whose calling is to help former prostitutes and addicts escape the streets: passion, vision, energy, profound compassion.
But there’s something else that sets her apart, a gift that has allowed her to disperse her message widely and to collect a bright, committed team to her cause: Star power. Charisma. The duende, as the Spanish so artfully put it. Which you could define as the spirit of evocation, soul, authenticity, emotion. And let me tell you: this matters.
Stevens is a master storyteller, a brilliant speaker who finds just the right balance between delivering a well-honed spiel and channeling magic. She stays on message, choosing her words with the confidence and precision of a trained actor with a great scriptwriter in the wings. But her performance never feels staged or over-rehearsed. Whether she’s talking to a seasoned NPR reporter like Jacki Lyden (e.g. this video) or persuading a roomful of donors to open the floodgates, she seldom fails to sound the right chord—it always feels as though she’s in your kitchen, telling you the story for the first time.
This is an amazing and rare ability. It’s a big part of what has allowed Stevens to raise 12 million dollars for Magdalene, build six residential facilities, and graduate 150 women from the program, without asking them to pay one penny.
It’s that union of Stevens’ singular vision, and the energy to carry it out, with her prodigious skills as a communicator that have carried her and Magdalene beyond the usual limits of what a small local nonprofit can do. Already, organizations from around the country have begun seeking her out, hoping to imitate her program’s model in their cities.
And then, this coup: in April, NPR reporter Jacki Lyden and her crew spent several weeks with Stevens and the women of Magdalene and produced a beautiful, heart-wrenching radio series highlighting the program, the women’s stories, and Thistle Farms. (See links below.) A huge deal, this kind of press. And the icing on the cake: Predsident Obama has just recognized Stevens as a “Champion of Change” and will recognize her at a White House ceremony tomorrow.
This isn’t simply a vindication of Stevens’ ideas and work. It’s a free supply of rocket fuel to help launch her vision to wherever she chooses to take it. This kind of recognition opens checkbooks, and it carries her message aloft on the four winds. It’s what happens when you unite great message with great messenger.
I wonder what all this is like for her. In certain quiet moments, it’s probably a little bit scary to watch some idea hatched alone in a kitchen 20 years ago grow so much bigger than any one person. But I’ll bet she’s thinking, How many more women can we tell “yes” now? How much faster can we build new beds to fill?
And Magdalene’s waiting list keeps growing.
To listen to the NPR series on Magdalene, click these: