Laurie Sherman has advocated for social justice throughout her career, from the achievement gap to marriage equality. A former adviser to the late Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and a mom of three, Sherman’s insights have been in demand since the release of her new book, “Chasing Social Justice: How Do We Advance the Work that Matters Most?

In her first-ever interview about the book, Sherman described it as “part memoir, part political analysis, part management and leadership lessons in the public sphere.”

“I was told it was not ideal to do one book on all of these themes,” she said. “I was going to try.”

The result is a book that has been praised by former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Sherman is doing virtual book talks, including one this Thursday through Temple Israel of Boston, where she is a member.


Sherman said that she wanted the book to come out before the 2020 presidential election, but she could never have predicted the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic or the death of George Floyd—all of which she will discuss at the Temple Israel event. She said her book might contain helpful lessons for those working toward social justice today.

One such lesson comes from her chapter on “making this real,” which uses the first four letters of “willpower” as an acronym for “What Does It Look Like?” She invites people to ask this question about contemporary crises and to envision the kind of change they wish to affect.

When Sherman discusses the social change she hopes to see around COVID-19, she envisions that in “places where people are insisting the virus does not exist, or that wearing a mask is a Democratic hoax, those people begin wearing masks and start to actually care about their neighbors.”

“‘What Does It Look Like?’ [means] making something complex into [something] much more real,” she explained.

Sherman has been thinking about social change and social justice since childhood. The book begins with her reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” as an 8-year-old growing up in Wisconsin. She and her family had moved there from New York, and they were the only Jews in their new hometown. Sherman recalled experiencing antisemitism that left her hiding under her bed, fearing that Nazis would come looking for her.

However, she also benefited from two positive role models—her Orthodox grandparents, Joe and Beatrice Maslan, whom she described as social justice warriors. They ran a pharmacy while also helping the needy. Joe held blood drives, while Beatrice cooked meals for anyone who was ill.

“They took care of other people, in and outside their own community,” Sherman said. “It’s the whole idea of tikkun olam.” She said the Jewish concept of repairing the world has been “built into my life.”

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Sherman created a publishing house named after her grandparents—Maslan House—through which she self-published her book. Maslan House has a motto: “Reading for a Change.” It underlines that “we don’t read enough anymore,” Sherman said, and it also spotlights titles that “can address making a difference in the world.”

One way Sherman made a difference was through her work in the administration of Boston’s longest-serving mayor, the late Thomas Menino.

She described several occasions in which she encouraged Menino to see things in a different way—including the achievement gap. When the mayor asked for her input on closing the gap, she suggested preventing it altogether by focusing on younger children.

In what she called “a really cool conversation,” the initially reluctant mayor ended up appointing her to head an initiative on the issue. She described her subsequent work as challenging, with some mothers concerned about participating because of issues such as domestic violence or deportation. Yet, she said, the two-year initiative made Boston a “national leader in the country on preventing the achievement gap.”

Sherman recognizes that while social change and social justice can achieve such milestones, participants can also feel frustrated at the pace of change, or that change hasn’t yet happened.

“Certainly, I understand the discouragement involved,” she said. “We all believed that once Newtown and Sandy Hook happened, there was no way we would not have gun reform. It’s easy to get discouraged if we don’t get the change we want.”

She recommends viewing the path of change as a spiral, where people tackle “the same issue from a slightly different place.”

Using racial injustice as an example, she said that now, “people understand it’s systemic. It’s not just individual police officers, individual people who are biased. People say, ‘Oh, gosh, maybe we need systemic policy change, not just a few changes here and there.’”

For those new to social justice, especially those in their 20s and 30s, Sherman has three specific recommendations.

“First, continue to educate ourselves,” she said. “Second, keep donating. Build donating into your life [regardless of] how much or how little, at age 18, 21, 25, after you start working. Crowdsource with friends and relatives to benefit organizations. Make sure you are donating, in whatever amount feels right, throughout your life. Third, think globally, act locally. Find some sort of community of other people who care about social justice.”

After all, it’s such communities that have contributed to social justice throughout history.

“Many [have been] grown by people who’ve come together, talked to one another, [taken that] one little step,” Sherman said.