“If we can’t achieve social justice, we can never achieve environmental justice. The privileged few may have a clean place to live, but everyone else will live in poverty and toxic sludge,” said Savanna Schuermann, a CFA San Diego member.

Since she began teaching in the Anthropology Department just over a decade ago, Schuermann has delighted in watching her students transform as they begin to question their cultural assumptions.

“Professor Schuermann’s classes have urged me to think critically about the systems which influence humans’ relationships with our environments. Through class discussions, I have grown to appreciate that humans are part of nature, instead of apart from it. When we ensure that our ecosystems thrive, we thrive with them,” said San Diego State student J.R. Ramoso.

She wants her students to understand what’s really exacerbating contemporary social and environmental problems. “You’ll hear people talk about the population problem, that there’s too many people on our finite planet,” said Schuermann, a San Diego State lecturer. “This myth of overpopulation is used to blame the developing world – namely people of color – for our social and environmental problems. But, if you look at the data, it’s unfounded. It’s a scapegoat. It’s racism is what it is. The real problem is one of consumption and inequality.”

“I had been teaching double-enrolled courses for the past five years. But then one fall, I was told that I wouldn’t be getting paid for two classes/double-enrollment, which also meant I lost my health insurance.”

– Savanna Schuermann, CFA San Diego member

Schuermann, who also serves as a faculty member for the sustainability major, is concerned with the way her own campus markets sustainability. “It’s almost like a form of environmental colonialism,” she said. In one instance, the university brought in a high-paid consultant to talk about the need to reduce carbon emissions by supplying the campus with more electric vehicle charging stations and more on-campus housing.

Schuermann sighed. “These solutions are great, but they are solutions for affluent people. If we don’t bring anti-racism and social justice to the forefront, it will perpetuate the gaps and the discriminatory system we already have. SDSU only talks about things like CO2 recycling, and compost,” she said. “But if people can’t eat, they can’t worry about not chopping down trees or not polluting the soil. If we don’t achieve social justice, we can never achieve sustainability.”

Though Schuermann’s major concerns on campus had been tethered to environmental justice, other injustices she faced as a lecturer in the CSU system began to emerge.

“The dean’s office started messing with me,” relayed Schuermann. “I had been teaching double-enrolled courses for the past five years. But then one fall, I was told that I wouldn’t be getting paid for two classes/double-enrollment, which also meant I lost my health insurance.” When asked why, the Dean’s office told her that she was short one student in a 120-person course.

Yet, the following spring semester, when Schuermann’s enrollment surpassed the course capacity for what should count as two classes, she was told again she would still be paid for just one class instead of two. This time, it was because her college claimed they didn’t have enough money to pay her sufficiently for her course. Then a third semester rolled around and Schuermann received yet a third distinct explanation for why she would not be compensated adequately for her course, despite surpassing the 120-student threshold.

Confused, Schuermann ended up meeting with the deans of her college for clarification on the policies surrounding this issue. As a result, Schuermann was told she would receive the proper pay, but not before receiving backhanded remarks from one of the Associate deans (who is now an Associate Vice President). They uttered something along the lines of, “Well, I guess now we’ll have to figure out where the money is going to come from.”

Coincidentally, for the next two years, the college lowered the course capacities so they would never hit double enrollment.

After the incident, Schuermann began speaking up more about the injustices and precarity that lecturers face. She applied for a faculty senate seat and was subsequently elected. Soon after, she and other lecturers in her department met with CFA members to inquire into what they could do to improve lecturer working conditions. Recognizing Schuermann’s capacity to organize, they began pulling her in to do the work of faculty rights. A year and a half later, Schuermann began serving as the Lecturer Representative for her chapter’s CFA Executive Board.

Mindful that lecturers make up the largest constituency in the CSU system and that they have untapped power, a handful of lecturer senators along with Schuermann proposed the Lecturer Affairs Committee, which would give formal representation to lecturers in the senate. Their proposal was approved by the senate, and Schuermann now chairs the committee. Still, she recognizes that management “keeps lecturers so siloed and precarious that it can be hard to build power.”

Notwithstanding the joy and connection she shares with her students, Schuermann remarked on how challenging it is to be a lecturer. “I think about when I will have to leave this profession behind almost every day,” she lamented. “Resources keep going down in terms of support and teaching assistant hours, but the workload keeps creeping upwards. People don’t realize how much goes into each student. They’re human beings that deserve care, and it’s impossible to do it all.”

She also expressed sorrow at the disrespect she often feels in her work environment. “It’s denigrating and doesn’t feel great to be told through your pay, working conditions, and by some tenure-line colleagues that your work isn’t important. I know my work is important and fulfills the mission of our university. Yet, as lecturers, we still get treated like second-class citizens.”

Despite Schuermann’s growing level of stress and undesirable work environment, her commitment to students has not changed nor gone unnoticed. Between 2020-22, she received five awards from students, one of them being the Associated Students Presidential Leadership Award for her work in advocating for students.

“Savanna’s instruction has significantly changed my outlook on the world,” said former student Molly Weber. “She does a brilliant job of showing the complexity and interconnectedness of environmental problems, social justice, and systemic racism. She creates a space to question the assumptions we make as a result of our learned culture and who they serve. I feel so lucky to have her as a mentor, she inspires me to continue, pushes me to do my best work, and supports me in my educational and life endeavors.”

With the help and support of other CFA members, Schuermann is finding ways to transform the university system into an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive. Having witnessed firsthand just how adversarial CSU management can be towards students and faculty, she is now telling everyone to speak up together.

“There is so much structural racism and inequality in our society, and it’s rampant in the university. Being someone who comes from privilege, I’ve been very lucky to never go hungry or not have a roof over my head. It is upsetting to know that people don’t have access to the resources they need to thrive because a handful of people, largely white men, set it up that way to benefit themselves to the detriment of everyone else,” said Schuermann.

Schuermann notes that transformation is possible. Having taught and studied anthropology, she is cognizant that there is nothing normal nor inevitable about this system. “We can change it, and I know CFA members are capable of this,” she said firmly. “We need systemic structural change. We need to collectively push back if we want a more socially and environmentally just place. The wealth gap and the stagnant wages are a direct result of intentional policy, as is student loan debt and the precarity of lecturers.”

In her final remark, Schuermann reminds us that sustainability can never be attained so long as we view it as a purely scientific endeavor. “People think of sustainability as a biophysical, environmental, or ecological concept without attention to the social side of the concept. But ecosystems don’t exist without people. The social stuff is just as much a part of sustainability. They all have to go together or we will never achieve environmental justice or sustainability. These things matter, and we need to make systemic and legislative changes, not just take shorter showers.”

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