Through years of fighting for equity for San Diego’s Black residents, Robert Tambuzi didn’t let anything stop him — not even cancer.
Tambuzi was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer in the summer of 2020, yet the 69-year-old continued his advocacy for social justice until his death on Thursday.
“He openly battled cancer while still showing up to serve the community,” Assemblymember Dr. Akilah Weber said on social media. “A long-time activist in southeastern San Diego, Tambuzi will be dearly missed.”
Tambuzi was born in Illinois, where he grew up as the oldest of seven children until his father returned from serving in the Korean War and his family relocated to San Diego.
Early on, the Skyline Hills resident recognized the racial disparities evident in his southeastern San Diego neighborhood and began fighting to correct them.
“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 told the Union-Tribune in an interview last year.
It was during his time at Lincoln High School that he first became involved in activism, walking out with other students who were demanding the school hire Black teachers and administrators and that it incorporate culturally appropriate food and curriculum.
Then while at UC San Diego, he and other students took over the chancellor’s office to again demand that the university increase Black faculty and staff members.
Diane Moss, managing director of the nonprofit Project New Village, met Tambuzi in college and was immediately impressed with the “very determined, culturally-grounded African American” he was.
“I had never met someone with his sense of commitment to being the example of doing the right thing to push people forward, particularly for people of color,” Moss said. “Before people started talking about equity, he was pushing for a level playing field.”
They first worked together with an organization focused on youth development and teen pregnancy prevention before they continued to collaborate with Project New Village, where Tambuzi was the first board chair. He remained on the board until his death.
Tambuzi believed that closing the gap for health care disparities involved the creation of more community gardens to increase access to healthier food options, and he was working with Project New Village until recently to do just that.
Moss said he was instrumental in the creation of the Mount Hope Community Garden on Market Street, which was established to provide a gathering space for residents to practice sustainable agriculture.
After working for former San Diego Councilmember George Stevens in the late 1990s, Tambuzi served as executive director of Harambe House, a treatment center in Encanto that helped boys ages 12 to 17.
Amid leading various community efforts over the years — such as renaming Ozark Street to Willie James Jones Avenue for the valedictorian and star athlete killed in a drive-by shooting in 1994 — Tambuzi also ran the Unified African American Ministerial Action Council and volunteered for dozens of other organizations across San Diego.
More recently, Tambuzi was working closely 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 Black people .
Maxwell witnessed Tambuzi mentoring many young people and said that it is rare to meet a man so selfless.
“He broke the mold,” she said. “Even during his (cancer) battle, he never stopped showing up for people, and he wanted to make sure that was his legacy that they never forgot he was there for them.”
Moreover, Maxwell said Tambuzi pushed others to be the change they wanted to see in their community — and beyond.
“He wanted people to just think beyond two or three blocks,” she added. “He laid the foundation for us to build upon.”
In February, City Council President Pro-tem Monica Montgomery-Steppe honored Tambuzi as “Hero of the Day” in celebration of Black History Month.
“Robert Tambuzi was passionate about the community — that was a clear message throughout his many years of public service,” Montgomery-Steppe said on social media after his death. “His unapologetic, witty and vehement energy has resonated throughout District 4 while leaving a lasting impact on so many individuals.”
Through the years, Tambuzi held his deep conviction for advocacy and continued, even through his battle with cancer, saying his work was not yet done.
“Many of the issues that we started off fighting 30, 40, 50 years ago are still disproportionately affecting our communities,” Tambuzi said last year. “It doesn’t mean that we lost, it just means that we have to continue to push the needle and movement forward.”