Bob Santos, unofficial mayor of the International District, likes to quote environmentalist E.O. Wilson, saying, “Battles are where the fun is.”
The son of a Filipino immigrant father and Filipino and Native American mother, Santos (or Uncle Bob), 81, has long been an activist, community organizer and fierce protector of the International District. During an event at the Nagomi Teahouse on May 29, centered around the launch of a new book he co-authored, Santos told stories of some of the battles he and his collaborators fought, and the fun they had doing so.
Santos was joined by Elaine Ikoma Ko, a fellow activist who helped write the book, and Gary Iwamoto, a playwright and co-author, who talked about the process of turning research and stories into a finished book. Also on the panel was veteran civil rights activists Doug Chin, who wrote the book’s preface, and community leader Cindy Domingo.
The new book—The Gang of Four: Four Leaders, Four Communities, One Friendship—tells the story of four activists and community leaders from four ethnic communities in Seattle: Santos from the Asian Pacific Islander community, Native American Bernie Whitebear, Latino Roberto Maestas, and African American Larry Gossett.
“This book is about our stories, our individual stories, and the stories about us as a collective group,” Santos told the audience. “And we were very serious. We were shutting down jobs, we were meeting each other in jail cells and all that kind of stuff, and we were getting things done, but we had a lot of fun together.”
The four men—known as the Gang of Four—met in the 60s, when Santos allowed civil rights groups to use the basement of his nonprofit free of charge.
All of the men were leaders in their communities who went on to found or head successful nonprofits in Seattle: Maestas founded El Centro de la Raza, Whitebear founded United Indians of all Tribes, Gossett was executive director of Seattle’s Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), and Santos started the International District Improvement Association (known today as InterIm CDA). Because they were so often competing for the same federal money, they decided to work together to enlarge the pot, and make sure resources were allocated to their communities.
This sometimes required creative tactics. Santos recalled that at City Council finance committee hearings, the four knew they needed to keep the council members, who’d just come back from lunch, alert and awake. Whitebear would bring Native American drummers to the lobby, and Maestas would testify in Spanish through an interpreter, thus prolonging the process.
The Gang eventually founded the Minority Executive Directors Coalition, which now boasts around 130 member organizations, according to Santos.
Santos and Gossett—currently a King County Council member—are the only surviving members of the Gang of Four. Maestas, Gossett, and Santos had been working on a book on-and-off after the passing of Whitebear in 2000. When Maestas died 10 years later, Santos and Gossett felt more of an urgency to finish it while they both survived.
With the book finally finished, Santos has attended readings and signings throughout Seattle in the past few weeks.
Santos’ own lifelong work has been to preserve the International District in a way that benefits those who live there. Born in the District’s NP Hotel, he grew up there for much of his childhood. Over the years he fought hard against development that ran against the interests of the community through serving as Executive Director of InterIm CDA, among many other positions.
Chin, who wrote the foreword to the book, said he has great respect for Santos because of what he accomplished.
“Bob led the movement to reestablish and revitalize the Chinatown International District,” Chin said. “Prior to that, if you look at conditions in the Chinatown International District—I mean, [it had] the poorest housing in the city. Nothing for low-income elderly, no services, stagnant businesses.”
Santos’ approach to activism and community organizing was savvy and relied on networks and insider connections in the political system. Santos recalls spending his evenings away from family, having dinner with politicians, or going to lounges where business leaders skeptical of activists like him would hang out, so he could make a personal connection with them.
Activism was a constantly resurfacing topic of the Gang of Four event. Panelist Cindy Domingo spoke about her life-long activist work in the Filipino and Asian American communities, and how activism has changed over the decades. Her brother Silme Domingo was one of two Filipino activists and union leaders assassinated in Seattle in 1981 on the orders of the Marcos dictatorship.
After the panelists finished speaking and questions were over, Santos stayed to sign books and chat with people.
Michael Blumson, who was invited to the event by members of InterIm CDA, said there are lessons to be learned from that period for today’s activists.
“I think we’re still fighting a lot of those battles—we’re still fighting the same kind of systemic injustice that we were then,” Blumson said. “Reminding everybody of the victories and what it took to get progress before is really important.”
Turnout at the event, particularly the amount of young people, was encouraging to Ko. She said the Gang of Four book isn’t trying to impart any particular lesson about activism, but that there’s great value to recording stories from the Civil Rights movement.
Santos said part of the reason for writing the book was to educate young people about ways they can make their voices heard—something he is optimistic about.
“I see at all our book readings now, there’s probably 50 percent of of the old guard, the old activists, or the folks that grew up in the activism movement,” Santos said, “and then a whole other group of very young people that want to hear and learn about the history of this civil rights movement. And those are young people that are potential activists and leaders of our community.”
A Daybreak Star Center Book Event happens on Tuesday, June 30 at 6:30 p.m. and features Bob Santos and other speakers at the Daybreak Star Center (Discovery Park 5011 Bernie Whitebear Way, Seattle, WA 98199). The event is sponsored by the United Indian of All Tribes Foundation.