Blog Post

Career Path: Yao “Cha Cha” Foli

Want to make a career of citizen science, but not sure how? Let’s learn from the experiences of those building careers in this dynamic field.

Yao “Chacha” Foli. Photo provided

Yao “Chacha” Foli is an Independent Community-Based Organizations (ICBO) advisor and community researcher for the NOISE Project in collaboration with Cornell Lab of Ornithology [NOISE project profile]. At the age 31, after years leading environmental NGOs in the Ghana’s Volta Region, he received a full scholarship to a private liberal arts college in upstate New York. This opened up a new world of opportunities that culminated in Ndor Eco-Village, an organization he founded to promote sustainable agriculture and environmental education in Volta region.

The mission at “Ndor” is to realize the rich human and agricultural potential of Ghana’s Volta region. They believe that with the right education, skills and training, they can improve agricultural livelihoods and protect the natural world they all depend on.

Chaha returned to Ghana earlier this year and, due to Covid-19, spent an extended period of time there developing new citizen science projects for his community. Read more about how Chacha’s has been using citizen science to promote rural education, environmental justice, and sustainable agriculture and more.

How did you first get involved with citizen science?

I got involved with citizen science through the Independent Community-Based Organizations (ICBOs), a group of community researchers focused on how to create equitable partnerships between community-based organizations in minoritized communities and informal science institutions.

I joined the ICBOs, in the Fall of 2018. As an ICBO I advise and lead community research. While working with the ICBOs and reading about the collaboration between the ICBOs and the CSA, I was yearning to be involved practically. I had an opportunity to present the ICBO research results and our Noise Pollution Project together with the ICBOs at the Citizen science Association conference in Raleigh, North Carolina 2019. The conference at Raleigh was my ‘aha’ moment and has geared me to focus on community development using citizen science: A combination of good science involving the community and traditional ecological knowledge.  I wrote a song about it (the ICBO theme song) and this was the song of the day at the conference in Raleigh! 

Describe a defining opportunity that helped get you where you are now.

The scales tilt! I had the opportunity as a community researcher and an ICBO advisor to work hand in hand with national scientists, researchers, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Working with this diverse group of incredible human beings has created access to learning and understanding how to work effectively, equitably, and collaboratively with a scientific institution to serve my community and improve public health. In our work, we use Community-based Participatory Research and Grounded Theory Approaches to co-create an equitable science project. It is a good thing for community-based organizations and leaders to understand the process of creating an inclusive, bottom-up, and equitable collaboration that will benefit their communities. I am grateful for the opportunity to be at the table. It is imperative to share what I have learned with my community, particularly the importance of science education, common sense, and traditional ecological knowledge. These are all combined in Citizen Science. I am proud to say the ICBOs have catapulted me and provided me with access to learn and make a change within my community and beyond.

Advice to those hoping to build a career in citizen science.

The future belongs to those who prepare for it today. This is the perfect opportunity to learn, understand, and implement science inclusively and equitably in collaboration with our communities. It is good to learn from each other and be guided by equity and justice for the betterment of the ecology. Science to benefit mankind and the environment. Science for all, science for all cultures. You have a part to play in this world to make it better than it is. Get involved and pick your part in Citizen Science. The solution is within us when we seek for good science, process, equity, inclusion, diversity, and collaboration to co-create answers for the betterment of our community.

How do you use citizen science in your work? How has this changed over the years?

Every aspect of my project is possible through Citizen Science, from promoting rural education, environmental justice, and sustainable agriculture. This is one of the reasons I am interested in learning even more about citizen science and focusing on a career path in citizen science. My recent visit home has been  full of community education, interviews, and meetings with community leaders about noise pollution, food justice, and water quality. Throughout the interviews and conversations I’ve had with community members, I noticed the recurrence of practices in food production that could be harmful. Some solutions adopted by many farmers are perilous to people and the environment. 

This pandemic is an opportunity for us to learn about environmental injustice, food injustice, and environmental degradation. It encourages us to come together, work together, and find a solution to challenges. Through co-creation we can change the wrong process and ethics that lead our community to impoverished and unhealthy living situations. The introduction of Citizen Science and STEM can play a vital role in informal science education and engagement in my community. Through common sense, science education and traditional ecological knowledge, in combination with the scientific process, we will strengthen my community environmentally and promote quality public health.

Yao “Chacha” Foli with elders and the chief of the village of Tonglo, a village Ndor Eco village is collaborating within promotion of rural education and sustainable agriculture. Photo provided by Yao “Chacha” Foli

Using Citizen Science to support and help find answers to questions by involving the community in research projects within our community is the answer. When my community is involved and participates, this is a form of education. The state of our community’s public health depends on how effectively our community preserves, conserves, and protects the environment that feeds and employs us. How does a community push themselves to better understand and follow best practices, and in this way improve sanitation and good health?

Ndor Eco Village is working in conjunction with NYU professors and students on a water collection and water quality project in my community in Ghana. I have visited all the local water sources and observed the sanitary conditions, held meetings, and interviewed the community members to better understand how we can improve water quality and what policies could assist us to achieve clean water. Ndor Eco Village and the NYU students will be doing water testing next year to identify contaminants and pollutants in our water sources.

[additional project details in full question response]

Gathering water from the water source for the community. The community in collaboration with Ndor and NYU students will be working on a water testing and water filtration project next year in my community, Ghana. Photo by Yao “Chacha” Foli

Yao A. Foli is a ICBO advisor and Community researcher for the NOISE Project in collaboration with Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Projects supported by Prof. Vanessa Harden, Associate professor at NYU and Myra Khan, Graduate student from Integrated Digital Media at NYU.

Myra has been working with Foli “Chacha” Yao, founder of Ndor Eco Village in Ghana as part of an independent study with Professor Vanessa Harden.

This project is one of the unique projects being explored in the IDM.Grow program.IDM.Grow is an integrated program committed to promoting sustainability and social justice within the design field by providing students the opportunity to actively engage in an impact-led design process. This program connects students with real stakeholders who are experiencing existing challenges related to agriculture and food access.

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