It’s been over twenty years since Rev. Rob Newells, an Associate Minister at the Imani Community Church in his native city of Oakland, and Executive Director of AIDS Project of the East Bay, consciously dedicated himself to the community of those living with and affected by HIV.
“My circle of gay friends was full of people living with HIV when I came out in 1996. I remember cooking and shopping, and going to clinic visits and food pantries – seeing the need for support and seeing the side effects that some of the medications were having on people I really loved,” he explains.
“When I was getting ready to move to the East Coast, I told myself that I would find a way to honor my friends by volunteering around HIV as soon as I got settled. About a year later, I found myself helping to develop an education and outreach program focused on young black men who have sex with men in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina,” the Marine Corps veteran adds.
That was in 1999.
Newells’ leadership in the field has grown exponentially since, taking on increasingly visible roles in the HIV community, domestically and abroad. He was a 2011 Fellow of the Black AIDS Institute‘s African American HIV University Community Mobilization College, and has been a biomedical HIV prevention research advocate with AVAC since 2012. Newells also serves as Community Advisory Board Co-Chair for the UCSF amfAR Institute for HIV Cure Research. Each of these roles is grounded in his position leading one of the East Bay’s most dynamic community-based HIV service organizations.
At APEB, Newells and his team are focused on providing culturally sensitive, non-judgmental services to all those living with or at risk of HIV infection in Alameda County.
With a wellness center that offers primary and HIV specialty care, HIV and Hepatitis C rapid testing, housing management services, and help navigating access to and information about PrEP, APEB equips clients with the information and tools to advocate for themselves and their communities. This model and mindset underscores what Newells says he finds most powerful about the field today.
“I think what has always been most compelling about HIV/AIDS is the influence of often self-educated advocates on HIV policy and practice, at all levels and in all parts of the globe,” he emphasizes. At the helm of an organization that continues to build a cadre of informed champions, Newells and his colleagues are ensuring this influence doesn’t wither.
His latest responsibility, as elected co-chair of the AIDS2020 Local Planning Group (LPG) and its Steering Committee, adds to his impressive list of leadership roles. The LPG is comprised of Bay Area pioneers in community health, scientists and researchers, faith-based organizations, and public health officials, working to create a program of Bay Area focused events and activities leading up to, during, and after the 2020 conference. Underscoring the impact and reach of his influence and work, the LPG strives to ensure that the region’s work is well-represented and celebrated.
This position is also a natural one for Newells in the evolution of his involvement with the International AIDS Society, as a member and active conference participant.
“My first International AIDS Conference was in D.C. (2012). I didn’t travel far, but my perspective was necessarily broadened beyond what I had imagined from my seemingly sheltered, privileged experience in urban U.S. cities,” he remembers.
Newells has been living with HIV since 2005, at that 2012 conference Newells was a scholarship recipient and participant in the conference’s Positive Living Summit.
“The small group of people I connected with during the Summit pre-conference and throughout the week were from Jamaica, Nigeria, and South Africa, and we all remain connected to this day,” he adds.
At the 2016 conference in Durban, South Africa, he was again a scholarship recipient, and participant in the Towards an HIV Cure Summit. In 2018 in Amsterdam, he took on the challenging role of Track D rapporteur, reporting on the proceedings and outcomes from the sessions dedicated to social and political research, law, policy, and human rights.
Reflecting further on his first conference experience in Washington, and on what he hopes delegates and visitors experience in July 2020, Newells emphasized the emotional impact that the International AIDS Conference can have on participants and communities.
“It was the first time I had been in a room with that many people living with HIV, and many of them looked like me. It was affirming and humbling in ways that I don’t know how to put into words.
I hope in 2020 that our guests from around the world are able to see themselves – and their neighbors – represented throughout the conference as they travel between Oakland and San Francisco.”
With leadership like his, that seems very promising.
Rev. Rob Newells studied Communication Arts and Sciences as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, and subsequently completed coursework toward the Master of Divinity degree and Certificate of Sexuality and Religion at Pacific School of Religion.
At Princeton Theological Seminary, he completed the Black Theology and Leadership Institute in 2015, and received a Certificate in Theology and Ministry in 2017.
Newells is a contributing author to the book Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives for which he penned the chapter on “The Black Church.” He was ordained in 2018.