Saying Goodbye to a public health hero, “Uncle Bob” Santos

By Kalayaan Domingo, Healthy Eating and Active Living Project Manager at Public Health

On August 27th, 2016, Seattle lost one of our hometown heroes, Bob Santos, or Uncle Bob, as he was affectionately called.

uncle bob.jpegIf you’ve visited Seattle’s International District, there is a good chance that you met Uncle Bob. I am fortunate enough to have known Uncle Bob since I was a child. My father was one of the many Asian-American activists he inspired and mentored during the 1970s and throughout his lifetime.

A lifelong resident of the neighborhood, Bob Santos was born in 1934 to a Filipino immigrant father and a Native American/Filipino mother and raised in what was then called Chinatown.. The International District was Uncle Bob’s home, and he fought tirelessly to preserve and improve the area for its residents and the larger Asian-American community. He focused on many issues, but was particularly committed to racial equity, including health equity.

After his death I reflected upon and the ways that his work contributed to the health of his community. Uncle Bob worked outside of the traditional public health infrastructure, but nonetheless understood that building healthy communities is essential to building health. As we mourn the loss of a true hero, let’s celebrate his successes.

  • Uncle Bob created the InterIm Community Development Association
    Uncle Bob started this organization in the early 1970s along with other leaders and activists. Over the years Uncle Bob was the Director and an advocate to improve and maintain the International District/Chinatown as a vibrant cultural community. InterIm is an institution that supports the community through housing, advocacy and culturally relevant support services. The development of InterIm gave the community a stronger voice to advocate for changes, to secure resources, and provide necessary and culturally relevant services.
  • Uncle Bob was an advocate for people and families experiencing homelessness.
    In 1999 Bob Santos was appointed under President Bill Clinton to head up the local U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office as the regional administrator. In this position Uncle Bob helped transition countless spaces for temporary and permanent housing for low-income families, homeless individuals and veterans. Uncle Bob also fought to preserve housing for vulnerable populations, such as elderly and immigrant families. He fought to preserve the culture of a community while ensuring that all people had a place to call home.
  • Uncle Bob valued the preservation and development of cultural spaces.
    Growing up in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic community, Uncle Bob was surrounded by diversity. He understood the importance of culture and devoted himself to creating spaces to express cultural values and practices. He helped develop the the Danny Woo Garden, where elders from the community grow vegetables used in their traditional cooking, such as bitter melon, daikon and Bok Choy.
  • Uncle Bob was a community advocate
    Uncle Bob was a fierce advocate for the cultural and ethnic identity of the International District. In the 1970’s The Kingdome, a large multi-sport stadium, was slated to be built on the fringe of the ID. Uncle Bob organized and led groups of activists to protest the development of the Kingdome as a way to maintain, preserve and protect the community for its residents. While these actions did not stop the construction of the Kingdome it drew attention to the concerns of the community.

A celebration and remembrance in honor of Robert “Uncle Bob” Santos will be held on Friday, September 23 from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at WAMU Theater at CenturyLink Field (800 Occidental Avenue S., Seattle, WA 98134), located on the corner of S. Royal Brougham Way & Occidental Avenue S. The public is invited to attend.