Whether it was bonding with the other Fellows or teaching the Director of Communications at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation how to give a proper thanksgiving “clap back,” this summer, in many more ways than one, was life changing.

I had the opportunity to intern with the Truth Initiative, which is America’s largest nonprofit dedicated to stopping tobacco use among youth. One of the main priorities at Truth is to spread the facts about tobacco companies and how they market toward low income, LGBTQ and other vulnerable communities, such as kids. For example, big tobacco companies label African Americans as less educated and having low self-esteem, making us a market priority. When I first heard the words that they use to describe me, I couldn’t help but feel anger. The color of my skin and my socioeconomic status shouldn’t determine how likely I am to become addicted to cigarettes. But sadly, that’s the reality for many people who look like me.

Looking back now, I realize that big tobacco companies are not the only ones who target vulnerable communities. Beauty companies do too. I remember being 10 years old and walking down the aisles of beauty supply stores with my mom. To the left, I would always see the hair lotions. A little further down and I reached the combs and brushes, and finally at the end, I reached the most precious items: the perm boxes. The boxes, featured little black girls with long, straight, luscious hair. And every time, I begged my mom to make me look like the girl on the box because those companies made me feel like, maybe, just maybe, if I tamed my curls, I’d be prettier. Sadly, when you’re told enough times that you must fit into a certain mold, it starts to stick with you. I’m fed up with companies using their communications to take advantage of vulnerable communities. And this summer I learned that with communication, I have the ability to change that.

I was fortunate enough to help Truth spread the facts about big tobacco companies by writing articles. My words were used to help tens of thousands of people. From writing articles, I’ve learned that every voice matters, and, most importantly, that any voice, big or small, can make a difference. I’ve also learned to appreciate the work that public interest communicators do. To me, it isn’t simply about advocating on behalf of a social cause. It’s about telling the stories of people who are affected by negative messaging and communication and making sure that we’re the generation to end that cycle.

One takeaway I got from my internship is that many companies, like those in the tobacco industry, have the power to use their messaging to do evil things. But I want to challenge that by saying we all can come together to use our stories for good. Tobacco companies are trying to normalize a bad habit, but instead we should be making an effort to normalize the good in people. We could use communications to dispel the myth that African Americans are less educated and to help other communities who are stereotyped. Moving forward, I will continue to spread my story, to speak up when I hear negative stereotypes, and to inform those who may not be aware about how they are being targeted.

I want to leave you all with a quote that changed how I see communications. It’s from the CEO of Truth, Robin Koval. She said, “Give me the facts and I learn. Give me the truth and I believe. But give me a story and you live in my heart forever.”