My parents taught me to listen. “Everyone has a story,” they said. “Let them tell it, and you’ll discover a lot of truths.” They sought out voices from the underside of society, invited people to our dinner table who spoke of realities I never had to face. I heard stories of poverty, racism, violence, and oppression. These stories shaped my worldview. I learned that suffering often follows a pattern, that societal forces can steer a person’s life in a direction they never intended or wanted.

The stories of the poor in South Asia reveal the same pattern, where societal forces can shape an individual’s prospects. Deep-rooted society structures–like the caste system, or ancient rituals–like the ritualized prostitution–can keep a family in poverty, or force a young girl to become a village’s property for sexual exploitation. These truths are ugly, complicated, and overwhelming. How can you reshape the force of society to lift people up instead of push them down?

Through my internship with Dignity Freedom Network I’m learning the answer to that question. The approach must recognize the fundamental problem–disregard for each individual’s value–and return a holistic solution to address the individual’s full needs. I’m also learning that it takes a team; for the first time in my life I am part of an international group, fighting together to change lives. Each person pitching in makes the task less overwhelming. The stories I hear from DFN speak their own truth. A young girl can break free of slavery and craft her own future, showing dignity and resilience in the worst circumstances. A mother can learn to provide for her family using basic tools and knowledge, proving it’s possible to rise against poverty. Through education, children born with few opportunities can channel their dreams, kindling hope not only for their future, but for the next generation’s. I have learned to listen to other people’s stories; now I am learning I can help them change their future narrative, to shape it into the story they want to tell.

Stories are real, all names and photos have been changed for protection, and are representative.