NCCU Awarded National Science Foundation Grant to Establish Environmental Justice Hub

Posted February 01, 2022, 12:45PM

North Carolina Central University (NCCU) is among seven institutions of higher learning and 12 community groups that have been awarded a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Coastlines and People Awards, or CoPe, grant also includes Clemson University; East Carolina University, which will serve as the central coordinating hub for the project; Manhattan College; University of North Carolina at Greensboro; the University of Virginia; and Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Community partners involved in the project are the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and the Pitt County Coalition Against Racism.

Christopher Zarzar, Ph.D., NCCU’s principal investigator on the grant and assistant professor of environmental, earth and geospatial sciences, said the project’s goal is to address historic disproportionate impacts of water issues through system mapping, vulnerability assessment, community adaptation and environmental justice for communities that are downstream in eastern North Carolina – primarily Greenville, Princeville, Nags Head and Hyde County.

“In Princeville, for example, there’s infrastructure there that needs to be built or repaired to address issues now and in the future with climate change. With sea level rise and more intense tropical systems, we will need to build resiliency now,” Zarzar said. “Those areas of the state were chosen because they’re having these problems and they’ve been disproportionately impacted by natural disasters.”

NCCU, which was awarded $350,000, has three key roles in the grant:

  • Serving as the geospatial experts; conducting the mapping and building an interactive web portal;
  • Compiling community stories and publishing or sharing those stories between communities and partners; and
  • Helping to mentor and train community interns who will be involved with constructing the new data networks.

“This program will work closely with the community and ask them what they’ve experienced and what they’ve witnesses, and from that, we will collaboratively research with them. We’re trying to change the tide of how things operate,” said ZarZar.

The first round of intensive discussions with community members in Princeville recently occurred and went well, Zarzar said. In part because of those discussions, an internship/community science program is now being proposed.

Gordana Vlahovic, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Environmental, Earth and Geospatial Sciences, and Timothy Mulrooney, Ph.D., and Rakesh Malhotra, Ph.D., associate professors in environmental, earth and geospatial sciences, are working with Zarzar on the grant. Also assisting on the project for NCCU are two graduate students.

“It’s a big sense of pride for us as an HBCU to be able to go into these communities that have been disproportionately impacted by these water issues, including flooding, and help to address some longstanding environmental injustices,” Zarzar said. “Moreover, a lot of our students come from these areas.”

NCCU Provost David H. Jackson Jr. commended Zarzar, Vlahovic, Mulrooney and Malhotra for the grant and said he looks forward to what he knows will be outstanding work.

“North Carolina Central University is excited to be awarded the Coastlines and People Awards grant,” said Jackson. “NCCU has always been at the forefront of meeting the needs of underserved communities and I am confident that our exceptional Environmental, Earth and Geospatial Sciences department will make significant contributions to this monumental project.”

“North Carolina is really unique because we’re one of the few states in which most of the rivers originate in the state, and that means we don’t really rely on other states to give us fresh water, but instead are dependent on the precipitation and rain that falls in our state,” Zarzar said. “Essentially, we are responsible for our water quality and our water resources and how we maintain them. I am very proud that some of my colleagues and I will get to take on this very important work.”

For more information about the CoPe grant, visit

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