During the swearing-in of members of the Massachusetts Governor’s Task Force on Hate Crimes, it first struck Deborah “D.J.” Williams ’20: I’m a part of something huge.

“I heard people saying, ‘I’m the district attorney of this place,’ ‘I’m a lawyer at this organization,’ ‘I’m the head of law enforcement in this city,’” she says. “Here I am, an Amherst sophomore, in the same room with these important people. It was a little intimidating. But I knew from day one that we would be able to effect good and needed change.”

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At its inception, the task force divided into subgroups focused on education and law enforcement; Williams chose to be part of the education group. Her responsibility is to represent the perspective of, and to advocate for, youth in the state.

A woman standing in front of a city building
Her role on the commission is to represent the perspective of youth in Massachusetts.

A Spanish major from Brooklyn, N.Y., Williams has been active at Amherst in the Women’s and Gender Center and in LGBTQ advocacy, and she started an affinity group for black and Latinx students. Her other Amherst activities include membership in Dancing and Stepping at Amherst College, the women’s rugby team, the Resurrect Gospel Choir and the Black Student Union.

Last spring she studied in Cuba, participating in task-force meetings remotely—and impressing the more experienced members of the group. “When the task force was first created, it was clear that members brought varied experiences and expertise to the table, including D.J.,” says fellow member and City of Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper. “She is a critical thinker who makes valuable contributions to group discussions. She is also really committed to the mission of the task force and shares her thoughtful and insightful input during meetings.”

The media values her opinions too. The Boston Globe interviewed Williams for a December 2018 article on the rise of hate crimes, noting that she views education as an essential tool. She explains now: “Because hate is a learned behavior, it’s a mistake to focus solely on after-the-fact measures. We’d only be addressing the symptoms and the results of an illness—not the sickness itself.”

“That’s why it’s important to start the conversation about tolerance and acceptance early, with children, in the schools,” Williams says. “In doing so, we’re creating different, more peaceful and loving learned behaviors.”

Photo by Beth Perkins