Through cancer and injustice, activist continues fight for San Diego’s Black residents

Longtime community advocate Robert Tambuzi has fought for representation, equity and justice for San Diego’s Black residents throughout most of his life.

Recently, he found himself in one of his greatest battles — a fight against cancer.

Last year, he was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer. He has since completed several chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he said, and it’s possible the cancer is gone. But he’s still awaiting further results.

On a recent Monday, he sat next to a bookcase inside his Skyline Hills home in southeastern San Diego. The shelves were filled with just a few of the dozen awards he has received over the years for advocating for social justice. There also were picture frames with photographs of some of his 16 grandchildren.

Tambuzi, 68, is slowly regaining his strength in the wake of the treatments. Still, that hasn’t stopped him from contributing to local organizations that fight on behalf of San Diego’s under-served communities.

He has a deep conviction for standing up against injustice — something that becomes obvious when he talks about racial disparities in education and the health care system.

“It’s a heavy lift … but why else would God put us on this planet if it wasn’t to make the world better for people and to be a voice for the voiceless,” Tambuzi said.

With his health improving, Tambuzi is now shifting his focus to projects that address lack of access to healthy foods in neighborhoods in southeastern San Diego and pressing for policy issues that positively impact Black residents.

“Many of the issues that we started off fighting 30, 40, 50 years ago are still disproportionately affecting our communities,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we lost, it just means that we have to continue to push the needle and movement forward.”

The oldest of seven children, Tambuzi was born in Illinois. He lived there until his father returned from serving in the Korean war, and the family relocated to southeastern San Diego.

When he was a student at Lincoln High School, he became involved in activism. He walked out of school with other students who demanded the school hire Black teachers and administrators, and incorporate culturally appropriate food and curriculum.

He later enrolled at San Diego City College to pursue an associate’s degree in journalism, then transferred to University of California San Diego to study communications and sociology.

While at UCSD he participated in a takeover of the chancellor’s office to demand that the university increase Black faculty and staff members.

Diane Moss met Tambuzi in college and saw him as a mentor at the time.

“He’s determined and a kind hearted person,” said Moss, managing director of Project New Village, a nonprofit that promotes community wellness in southeastern San Diego.

They first worked together with an organization that focused on preventing teen pregnancy. And they continue to collaborate with Project New Village. Tambuzi serves on the board of directors.

“I think he has a deep conviction that we are right, that the majority narrative doesn’t reflect reality,” Moss said. “He knows that work needs to be done and he’s good at it.”

Tambuzi worked for former San Diego councilman George Stevens in the late 1990s. He served as executive director of Harambe House, a treatment center in Encanto that helped boys ages 12 to 17. He also ran the Unified African American Ministerial Action Council and volunteered for dozens of other organizations across San Diego.

He is currently shifting his focus to creating, what he calls a “good food hub,” in Mount Hope that is accessible to residents in southeastern San Diego. The idea is to provide space for local farmers and backyard gardeners to sell produce, and office space in southeastern San Diego.

He is also working with John Warren, publisher of The San Diego Voice and Viewpoint, and Francine Maxwell, president of the San Diego NAACP, on Black Men and Women United, a grassroots group that meets weekly to discuss issues affecting the Black community.

Tambuzi said he is interested in policy issues concerning policing and redistributing funding from certain budgets, such as gang units, to social service training for officers or youth employment and education support.

Maxwell said it’s rare to meet a man so selfless. She’s witnessed his work mentoring young people, and teaching people about the history of leaders who paved the way for those fighting for justice today.

“San Diego is blessed to have him and for however long we continue to have him he will be celebrated,” Maxwell said.

Friends have created a GoFundMe campaign to help Tambuzi and his family with medical bills.

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