YPCCC Partnerships: Interview with Action for Climate Emergency’s Lee Ann Sangalang

Action for the Climate Emergency (ACE) is a nonprofit that works at the nexus of youth, climate, civic engagement, and strategic media. ACE educates, inspires, and supports young people to lead the fight for their future. They envision a world in which a global movement, rich in youth leadership, has turned the tide on climate change. ACE reaches tens of millions of people annually in the United States with its programs.

Aqsa Mengal from YPCCC’s Partnerships Program had the opportunity to sit down recently with LeeAnn Sangalang, Head of Research and Experimentation at ACE, to learn more about ACE’s climate communications and education work and partnership with YPCCC.

Aqsa: Thank you, LeeAnn, for meeting with me today! To start off, could you tell me a bit about yourself and your role at Action for the Climate Emergency?

LeeAnn: My name is LeeAnn Sangalang and I am the Head of Research and Experimentation at Action for the Climate Emergency. I joined ACE in May of 2022, and have been here now for almost two years. ACE is committed to sharing evidence-based information with its audiences. Given that the organization has conducted a lot of research since its inception in 2008, ACE recognized the importance of continued research and hired me as a full-time staff member to oversee research work. Our research team has grown since I joined and is continuing to grow. My role includes coordinating the research we do in-house, message testing, and audience analysis. We also partner with other organizations to do external evaluations and other types of studies. We are always looking to test, refine, and adapt our climate outreach and education strategies based on our research. My role focuses on managing that work and translating our findings to staff internally and to our partners externally for outreach.

Aqsa: What led you to where you are now? How did you get involved in climate work?  

LeeAnn: Before I joined ACE, I was a college professor for about six years. My training is in health communication campaigns and I worked closely with community-based organizations to deliver important health information. I worked on several different health campaigns nationally and locally. Towards the end of my time teaching at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, I served as the Director of Research for a Covid-19 vaccine campaign which was focused on the health of communities of color and bridging the health disparity gap that communities of color face. I found that working directly in the community with community partners and being able to translate research into real world communications struck a chord with me. 

As the Covid-19 campaign wrapped up, I joined ACE. At the time, ACE was working with a lot of the same communities I had experience working with for the Covid-19 campaign. One of ACE’s campaigns focused on climate anxiety, and so health and climate issues were integrated in the organization’s approach. It’s not surprising that health justice issues intersect with climate justice. So it’s been very important to learn about these issues and how they intersect with the work I was previously doing, and bringing that skillset to the climate movement.

Aqsa: Thank you for highlighting those critical intersections between climate and health justice. Next, who is ACE’s target audience and what are ACE’s broad goals for climate action with your members and partners?

LeeAnn: We are an organization that focuses on youth and young adults as important members of the climate movement. We work to empower and educate young people on climate justice issues and provide them with tools to engage with climate action in their communities. That can range from direct climate actions like advocating for certain policies and holding elected officials accountable, to educating youth on climate justice topics that might not be covered in their school’s curriculum. Our field staff will visit middle schools and high schools and engage students on opportunities to act in their communities, and our digital team engages content creators and youth to participate in online discourse and to send petitions and participate in other similar forms of engagement. So really at its core, our goal is to educate and empower young people to engage in the climate movement at whatever stage of life they are in.

While we are primarily interested in working with young people, we are not necessarily excluding other groups. The broad age range ACE focuses on is 13 to 34. As you can see, that’s a big range and a lot of ‘life’ happens in that time! We try to tailor our work based on who is at the receiving end because middle school and high school students may need different things compared to folks who are over 18 and eligible to vote. The goal is to get people excited in the movement early on so that they remain engaged as they transition to adulthood. Our secondary audience would be the individuals that support young people like teachers, mentors, and parents. For our education programming, teachers are an audience that we like to engage with and help facilitate conversations with. We also reach beyond the traditional climate movement echo chamber to reach people who are not typically engaged in climate action, are increasingly targeted by disinformation, and yet have a critical role to play in paving the way forward for meaningful change.

Aqsa: I’d love to hear about how ACE has utilized YPCCC resources or insights in strategic communication, organizing, or advocacy work? 

LeeAnn: We’ve utilized a lot of YPCCC resources! For my work in particular, I really appreciate all of the research trend findings YPCCC has produced. YPCCC has always been on the cutting edge of research on attitudes, barriers, and other new data, and that has really been invaluable to ACE. We really like using the SASSY tool to conduct segmentation and using the Six Americas research to understand where there may be resistance and why. Through our partnership with YPCCC, we’ve also connected with other individuals at Yale or beyond who have been tackling similar questions or concerns at the time, or are using similar tools as us, and I’ve really appreciated the ways in which that has given us the opportunity to facilitate work together. Puji Masireddy from ACE’s Youth Advisory Board is excited to speak on an upcoming YPCCC panel for instance. 

Aqsa: What does ACE do well that other climate communicators could learn from? 

LeeAnn: Something unique to ACE is that we focus on audiences much younger than our peer organizations. A lot of the climate movement conceptualizes young people in a different way, focusing primarily on college age youth. We work with that age as well, but we have a wider age range for our audience. Most organizations do not take as much time conducting outreach to middle school and high school students. Outreach to youth requires trust and connection building, and I believe ACE continues to foster that. Getting youth interested in and valuing climate justice at a young age is extremely important because climate justice issues intersect with a range of other issues. Youth interest and involvement can lead to them being engaged voters when they reach voting age. Secondly, the range of tools that we use both in the field and digitally are very valuable and allow us to cover all of our bases in the climate movement.

Aqsa: What has been ACE’s single most exciting or surprising discovery you made in communicating and organizing around climate?  

LeeAnn: We did a youth pre-election poll with our partners at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and Climate Power. The poll revealed that climate remains a top issue for young people. One statistic from the poll that resonated with me was that 40% of participants (the largest segment of the sample) recognized climate is important and they believe in their influence to enact change, but they need to be motivated to take action. When it came to ranking issues that were important to them, climate was consistently in the top. That showed us that there is a lot of opportunity to reach, educate and mobilize younger audiences around climate. 

Almost 60% of the respondents said they are extremely likely to vote, but less than 20% had heard directly from political parties, campaigns, or community organizations. With 40 million eligible Millennial and Gen Z voters in 2024, that shows that there is a large untapped audience and voter base that is not being reached–demonstrating a tremendous gap and opportunity to provide information, resources and reminders in the lead up to the election. And that has proven to be an ongoing source of optimism for mobilizing the potential power of the youth vote.

Aqsa: That’s great to hear, thank you for sharing! Lastly, how does ACE remain hopeful and inspired to build public and political will in the climate movement?

LeeAnn: We remain hopeful because there is a lot of room for education and knowledge-sharing with the public and our audiences on issues they are concerned and passionate about. Secondly, and this is related to what we discussed earlier; I believe there is opportunity for new voters to enter this election cycle who can also help mobilize other voters to act. It’s on us to activate them, but the potential is definitely there. Once people see injustice, they are willing to act, so it’s a matter of reaching them. And it’s that potential and willingness on part of the public to act that keeps us motivated.

Thank you to LeeAnn Sangalang and ACE for their time, ongoing partnership with YPCCC, and important work in the climate space.