Robert “Bob” Santos is the most publicly recognized spokesperson and leader of the movement that began in the 1970s to preserve Seattle’s Chinatown/International District (ID).
Santos is the son of Filipino immigrant Sammy Santos and in Indipino (Native American/Filipino) mother, Virginia Nicol. He was born in Seattle in 1934 and grew up in the city’s Chinatown. He served in the US Marines after high school in the early 1950s, and returned to Seattle in 1955 to work for Boeing. In the 1960s, Santos became involved in civil rights struggles through his involvement with the Catholic Church and the encouragement of Catholic Interracial Council co-founder Walt Hubbard. While working at the Catholic-run St. Peter Claver Center in the late 1960s, Santos was able to provide free meeting space to some of the most radical civil rights groups in the city, thereby helping facilitate a multiracial civil rights sensibility among Seattle activists by making the Center what he called “the Heart of the Struggle.” In 1969, he was elected President of Seattle’s Catholic Interracial Council.
From 1972 to 1989, Santos served as Executive Director of Inter*Im (the International District Improvement Community Development Association). In this position, he was a pivotal liaison between community activists, private businesses, and government agencies in developing and overseeing ID preservation plans. The group’s agenda included increasing the ID’s affordable housing stock; preserving its culturally distinct small businesses; and providing the neighborhood a range of culturally appropriate social services, particularly for its Asian elderly. Through Santos’s leadership in the ID, he helped mentor a generation of young Asian activists in Seattle, earning him the nickname “Uncle Bob.”
Our ability to get the property owners and businesses to accept low-income housing was probably the greatest thing we could have done…Together we could bring vacant buildings back to life.
In 1982—along with leaders representing other communities of color Bernie Whitebear (Native American), Larry Gossett African-American), and Roberto Maestas (Latino)—Bob Santos co-founded the Minority Executive Director’s Coalition (MEDC). MEDC is a coalition of people of color dedicated to achieving equity and social justice in partnership with communities of color through advocacy, education and membership development. It is a rare organization that unifies people of color rather than divides them.
Santos also helped start many other community-based organizations such as the Denise Louie child Care Center, the Danny Woo Community Garden, and the International District Community Health Center. From 1989 to 1993, he oversaw the Seattle Chinatown/ International District Preservation Authority.
On April 14, 1994, US President Bill Clinton appointed Santos as the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary’s representative for the Northwest-Alaska area, Region X. His sense of the power of “we” determined his decision to accept the position. When an outdoor encampment was closed down by the city, Santos created the Federal Building Shelter.
As he tells the story, he called the regional administrator for GSA. “Jay,” I said, “could we, uh, house some homeless people in the Federal Building?” Jay Pearson said what any sensible administrator would say, “Bob, you know all the security issues and Oklahoma, and…” Bob replied, “Yeah, I know all that stuff. But Jay, could you come down to the Federal Building? Let’s look at it.”
Jay came, and together they found a space that could meet the security issues. Bob set about selling the plan to the other building tenants. “I decided to do that first, before I tried to get an okay from headquarters. And it was a little tough. But finally they said, “Let’s try it.”
All that was left was to get federal approval. Bob told Secretary Cisneros: “We have a chance to do a very innovative program, to shelter some folks in our federal building. Who do I work with?”
There was a long pause. “Well, Uncle Bob, why don’t you work with Marilyn Davis?” I knew I had it. He didn’t say no, and he didn’t say we had to [jump through the Appropriations hoop]. Twenty spots. That isn’t much. But more important we’ve set a precedent for other federal office buildings to shelter homeless people.
In 2002, Santos published an autobiography—Humbows, not Hotdogs!: Memoirs of a Savvy Asian American Activist—which is also an important source of information about the multiracial coalitions that comprised Seattle’s civil rights movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. Soon after the book’s publication, he returned to his position as Executive Director of Inter*Im. In spring 2006 he will step down from the nonprofit group that he led to revitalize the International District.