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April 01, 2010

Human Rights Hero: Ronald V. Dellums

by Damon A. Powell and VaShone Huff

In the world of HIV and AIDS there are many heroes. Scientists who despite setbacks, continue to search for a cure; doctors and nurses who work tirelessly to increase the health outcomes of their patients; and people living with HIV who continue to speak out against unfair policies and stigma. Yet even among heroes, a particular individual will stand out, and one of those individuals has been Ronald V. Dellums.

After establishing himself as a virtual icon within the world of American politics, Ronald Dellums left that world and entered the battle to combat HIV and AIDS. During his twenty-seven-year political career, Dellums had been instrumental in efforts to get the federal government to declare that Oakland, California, was under a state of emergency because of the rapid spread of HIV within the community, and then procuring some desperately needed funds to help check the spread of the virus within his hometown. But shortly after his retirement from the House he began to immerse himself in the world of HIV both nationally and internationally by becoming the president of Healthcare International Management—an organization that worked with the early South African government to develop low-cost health-care strategies. Dellums witnessed the effects of HIV and AIDS among the people of sub-Saharan Africa and began his own crusade to combat the spread of the virus. Because of his efforts, Dellums became the leading spokesperson on the tragedy of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and HIV’s spread throughout the world. This led to his serving as the chair of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS, and as a board member for the organization AIDS Action. During this time, Dellums attempted to persuade leaders from around the world to commit their governments and businesses to the development of an “AIDS Marshall Plan for Africa.”

Presently, Ronald Dellums serves as the mayor of Oakland, California. From the outset of his administration, he began to implement his plan to address the problem of HIV and AIDS within his community. The plan was to launch his own municipal HIV/AIDS initiative, called Get Screened Oakland. The primary goal of Get Screened Oakland is for every citizen within Oakland to know their HIV status. In order to reach this goal, Get Screened Oakland seeks to include HIV screening along with other standardized health-care screenings. This initiative not only combats stigma by normalizing HIV testing, but also opens doors for dialogue around the disease in general. Get Screened Oakland embodies a citywide approach to screening and prevention that involves both the public and private sectors in partnerships and collaborations that focus upon reaching highly vulnerable communities throughout the city.

Because Get Screened Oakland is about aggressive engagement, Mayor Dellums took the lead by getting HIV tested before the press on the steps of Oakland’s City Hall. In addition, Mayor Dellums put his face on billboards and in public service announcements asking the citizens of Oakland to follow his example by getting tested. Mayor Dellums remains actively involved in the project by encouraging other mayors to use his model and by presenting it to other cities both nationally and internationally.

The rise in testing numbers and persons entering treatment is a large indicator of Get Screened Oakland’s success. Mayor Dellums’s willingness to lead by example and share his model with others has not only contributed to the initiative’s success, but has also placed it in position to become a national model. Ronald V. Dellums is truly an HIV Human Rights Hero.


Rev. Damon A. Powell is a theologian, artist, and social activist who resides in the city of Oakland. VaShone Huff serves as the director of Intergovernmental Affairs in the office of Mayor Ronald V. Dellums.