Seattle Foundation Blog

Farewell and Thanks to Bob Santos

Bob Santos was a beloved leader and had immense impact in our community. He cared about individual people, families, community, and society. Bob's legacy includes the current and rising generations of community members he recruited and mentored, who continue the struggle to ensure inclusion and equity for all. Seattle Foundation employees Alice Ito and Elaine Chu remember Bob Santos and the impact he has had not only in their own lives but the community as a whole.

August 29, 2016

By Alice Ito, Director, Community Programs

“How’s it going?” he’d always ask—with his ready smile and a hug, he was “Uncle Bob” to me and many others. He was my friend, my colleague, and respected elder. People here in the greater Seattle area and around the country are grieving the death of Bob Santos who passed on August 27th, and paying tribute to his life’s work. 

Every day, Bob shared his great joy in life and his fierce conviction that every person has a right to a life of dignity. He cared about individual people, families, community, and society. Many others care, but few live out their values so consistently, with such tangible and far-reaching results. 

We are all benefiting from his work, whether we know it or not. Passing through Seattle’s Chinatown International District, Bob’s legacy is visible. In addition to affordable family and senior housing, Uncle Bob’s work includes mixed use buildings with locally owned small businesses, language accessible, culturally competent health and social services, and other community-led programs. 

Seattle and our region as a whole are better places because of the partnerships Bob forged to help make that happen. When his deep commitment to make life better for immigrant elders was not shared by others, Bob would find alternate interests and concerns so that they could align for a positive result. Bob reached across sectors and connected people who otherwise might not have worked together. 

What will be lost, if the Chinatown International District is gentrified into another expensive neighborhood where its rich cultural history becomes just a backdrop for upscale retail, and rents are sky-high? These are questions Bob wrestled with for decades, and he knew the development pressures weren’t letting up. His legacy includes the current and rising generations of community members he recruited and mentored, who continue the struggle to ensure inclusion and equity for all. 

Bob’s influence is felt far beyond Seattle. The people who learned from him, the strategies he used, and the partnerships he founded are behind successful community development efforts around the country. Beyond the U.S., I was privileged to join Bob when the “Four Amigos” (Larry Gossett, Roberto Maestas, Bernie Whitebear, and Santos) along with other community members traveled to Japan for a cultural exchange program. When Bob and his comrades spoke to Japanese media, government, and business audiences, they expanded understanding about Americans. What does an American look like? Sound like? Care about? 

Bob challenged many assumptions. He inspired people to do better. Bob Santos presente.

What I Learned From Bob

By Elaine Chu, Philanthropic Advisor

My friend and mentor of 20 years, the legendary community activist and leader Uncle Bob Santos passed away Saturday morning.  As I reflect back on my passion to be a leader in my community, Bob had so much influence on what I have done.

I was fresh out of college when I met Bob and was finding my short stint with the corporate world unfulfilling. My dad, who knew Bob for years, mentioned to him that I was confused about what to do. “Introduce me to her so I can take her to the heart of the community,” Bob said. When we did meet, my first question to him was, “What is the heart of the community?”  He responded “Don’t worry, you’ll know when it hits you.” Bob was right, and I never left.

My first community outreach involved encouraging participants to attend a workshop on tenant landlord laws. Discouragingly, only seven people showed up that day. Asked what I did to reach out to the community for the workshop, I told Bob that I had made some flyers and slipped them under the doors around the neighborhood.  Bob just shook his head and I knew he would have some valuable advice for me down the road. As it happened, I ended up having weekly meetings with Bob at Bush Garden and, over drinks and karaoke, we discussed how to address all the issues facing the community.  I always saw the same familiar faces from the community there as well.  

During one of those meetings, Bob came over after singing his song and said, “This is the heart of the community. The people you work with are not co-workers; they are family and will have your back.  The people you help are not your clients or accounts; they are human beings who look to you for change.  Community is not an 8-5 job. It isn’t even work- -it is your life.”   This advice led to me to think about my own personal background and. the community was where I want to be.

What I learned from Bob was respect – we can still be very good friends, but it’s essential to have a level of respect for the differences in opinions we have.  In other words, don’t take things personally.  I learned leadership – it isn’t about connecting with just certain groups of people, it is about being able to connect with everyone for one purpose. And finally, I learned purpose – we are all in community work because we see inequality in something – what do you want to change?

I got married in 2000 and had everyone in my community with me that day.  Uncle Bob was also there and took the opportunity to remind me of the important advice he gave me. Looking around at the happy gathering Bob said, “This is the heart of the community.”

I will miss you Bob - RIP.



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