Jacki Lyden interviews Penny Hall under the bridge where Penny used to live. Nashville, TN.

Jacki Lyden, the broadcast journalist whose voice is familiar to NPR listeners, has long been a friend and contributor to Women’s Voices for Change. In her travels around the country and the world, she seeks out the human voices that help listeners connect with events and issues in the news. And she has often taken time to bring a special perspective about the stories she encounters to the readers of Women’s Voices for Change. One memorable article was “Iran at Another Crossroad” (June 17, 2009).

This week marks the premiere of a series by Lyden and the photographer Stephen Alvarez, running on National Public Radio and npr.org, about Magdalene, a program in Nashville, Tenn., that helps former prostitutes stay off the streets by addressing their drug addictions. Here she gives us an inside look at how she and Alvarez, a longtime contributor to National Geographic, got started on the story.

Here’s the back story to the series “Nashville, Up from Prostitution,” which National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez and I reported for NPR. Nothing I could say could match the burls and whorls of these Tennessee voices. So I’m hoping you’ll listen to and watch the “front story” on your local NPR station and at npr.org, April 25-29.

What I can tell you about is the genesis of this project. You could say it all started in Paris, where Alvarez and I had worked together on the story “Paris Underground,” which was Alvarez’s February cover story for National Geographic and my story for Weekend Edition on Sunday Jan. 30.We profiled the Parisian cataphiles—people who explore the catacombs.

A few months later, Alvarez, a native Tennessean who lives with his family in Sewanee, phoned and said: “How about a story in Nashville on women coming out of prostitution?” It was a story he had long wanted to cover. I said yes immediately.

NPR has backed us all the way. Because we had already worked together, we knew that our complimentary strengths would be a good working matrix for this story. In Paris, there had been a larger crew. This time it would be just the two of us, and Alvarez would also be shooting a video.

Magdalene is a two-year, private rehabilitation program for women with criminal histories of drug addiction and prostitution. We arrived in Nashville on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, and went immediately to the story.  The first person we met was Magdalene’s founder, Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest who wanted to establish a sanctuary for women leaving prostitution. Magdalene’s former prostitutes live there for two years at no cost.  In 2001, Stevens began Thistle Farms, a bath and body care line through which the women could get income and training and build a job history. That’s where we found them: stirring pots of oil, labeling lip balms. We sort of got the back end of the story first: the women were making bath and body products they say promote healing. Healing oils are wrapped in a rough brown paper literally made from thistles, the women’s emblem.

We’s like the thistle,” said Penny Hall, a stocky woman who lived under a bridge for a decade.  “We grow up hard through the cracks, through the drought, don’t need no care or water, and we get broke down and beat up.  Then we come here, you can’t tell us nothin’. And eventually that hardness gets peeled off layer by layer, and you find this beautiful purple flower.”

I hope you’ll find time to listen to this series on air or online.  Often, we think our middle-class lives are the center of the world. They are our world, of course. But listening to these women, for whom childhood sexual abuse took chances away almost from the beginning, I was, to echo Alvarez’s words, in the presence of some of the bravest human beings I’ve ever met. Ten, 20, 30 years of crack cocaine abuse will kill you—add to it prostitution and you have a horrible cycle. That’s why prison is sometimes the first step toward breaking that cycle. You can hear about the bust we were on in today’s episode on “All Things Considered.”  Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Nashville: Up From Prostitution

All of the stories will be posted on the npr.org website after they are broadcast. Local NPR member stations will also carry the stories.

  • Monday, April 25 — Tell Me More with host Michel Martin, check local markets for time. (A conversation about the series with audio excerpts.)
  • Monday, April 25 — All Things Considered, “Nashville: Up From Prostitution, Part One.” In the first hour of the program, about 4:30 p.m. Eastern time.
  • Tuesday, April 26 — Morning Edition, “Nashville: Up From Prostitution, Part Two.” In the second hour of the program, about 6:20 a.m. Eastern time (repeats at 8:20 a.m.).
  • Wednesday, April 27 — Morning Edition, “Nashville: Up From Prostitution, Part Three.” In the second hour of the program, about 6:20 a.m. Eastern time (repeats at 8:20 a.m.).
  • Thursday, April 28 — Talk of the Nation,  “Nashville: Up From Prostitution,” with host Neal Conan, NPR’s Jacki Lyden and Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene, Nashville.

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