Thistle & Bee: Changing the Narrative for Sex Slaves in Memphis

by Melinda Lejman | photos courtesy of Thistle & Bee

In 2014, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched a public awareness campaign to inform the state about Human Trafficking and what can be done to prevent it. According to its 2013 “Geography of Trafficking in Tennessee,” more than 100 adults and 100 minors were victims of sex trafficking in Shelby County.

Sex trafficking is driven by demand, creating an underground economy of sexual exploitation, including sexual slavery. Victims of trafficking are left with little to survive on and a critical lack of resources. Thanks to one local nonprofit, that narrative is changing.

Thistle & Bee serves victims of human trafficking and those coming out of prostitution in Shelby County and beyond through a social enterprise centered around beekeeping and the manufacturing and selling of products, as well as through therapeutic clinical programs. The program was founded by Rev. Eileen Farmer of Calvary Episcopal Church and inspired by her visits to Thistle Farms in Nashville.

Jordan Boss, Executive Director since last October, oversees the organization’s social enterprise and therapeutic clinical program. “The clinical program works with women on everything from case management to trauma care to recovery,” says Boss. “It’s really the ‘work on self’ piece of what we do.”

The social enterprise piece employs the women they serve, paying $13.25 per hour to harvest the honey, which is then sold to the community with the proceeds invested back into the program.

They also make and sell a 14-ingredient premium granola product that is sweetened only with honey. “We’re teaching them everything from baking the granola to beekeeping,” says Boss. “We’re also teaching them how to take inventory, to process orders, and all of the different components to running a business.”

Thistle & Bee has 80 colonies of bees in twelve different locations around West Tennessee. The women learn the art of beekeeping alongside professional beekeepers. The program has been up and running since last June, and so far, all the women have been local.

One challenge they have faced is housing. “Our next big focus is we need a residential component,” says Boss. “We’re a sister organization of Thistle Farms which is a housing first model. What that means is the first step is really providing stable housing for the women.” Boss is hoping to secure a residential space to accommodate at least four women. Currently, participants are housed through the Salvation Army or another shelter.

Boss’s background in working with the homeless population has been an asset to Thistle & Bee as they work to solidify this critical piece. “I saw a great need within the homeless community, specifically women,” says Boss. “There weren’t services for women who were coming out of traumatic experiences, so I felt this was a natural progression for me, taking it one step further in working for the homeless community, but specifically for this population.”

Boss, who moved here from two years ago, has been heartened by the willingness of other organizations to partner with Thistle & Bee, allowing them to use space or provide resources for the women in the program. “We try as much as we can to utilize community partners to strengthen [the women’s] support system” says Boss. “One thing that I’ve noticed about Memphis that is really encouraging is the number of nonprofits and the willingness to partner. It’s not that way in every community, so I think it speaks volumes.”

Boss and her team are working on building a website so their honey, granola and tea can be purchased online, and hopes to have it fully functional in time for holiday shopping. Items can also
be purchased around town through vendors such as Babcock Gifts, Curb Market, and Dixon Gardens and Gardens Gift Shop.

When asked what else can be done to support these women and their recovery, Boss responded, “They need love, that’s what they need. It’s really what they’ve not experienced in life. They need that more than anything else.”

For more information or to support this program, visit