This article was published March 29, 1991 in The Times, San Mateo, California.
It remains contemporary and relevant.
Old-fashioned Potlucks Lead to New Friendships
by Dale Martin
In South Africa, it's called Koinonia - a meal-sharing project that attempts to counter apartheid by bringing black and white people together.
In San Mateo, it's a good old-fashioned potluck that has brought two black couples and two white couples (photo) together to share food and personal histories over the past year and a half.
Now, the four couples have become friends and want to start similar meal-sharing evenings in the community.
In a recent conversation with The Times, the couples discussed their experiences as well as an upcoming open house.
The evenings in San Mateo began simply enough with an invitation. Inspired by the idea of Koinonia, Ricki McGlashan contacted Millie Swann of Foster City - her colleague at Aragon High School - to see if she and her husband, Willie, would be interested in a similar project here. Libby Traubman, meanwhile, found Mysie and Freemon Hollands by contacting their church.
The process of getting together wasn't that easy, however. Although the white families had previous contact with black families through various school and community activities, "We realized we never have been invited into a black family's home to eat," said Len Traubman.
While the two black couples have had more multicultural experiences, they were interested in the project.
The first meeting was awkward, the couples report, but the effort was made easier when they began to tell their personal life stories.
"We talked about our high and low points. The things that affected us, our values, the way we were brought up. It helped us to understand each other in a way you don't get in a meeting," said Doug McGlashan.
There have been five potlucks so far, enough for everyone to have a chance to get to know one another. Beyond trading life stories, the couples have had lively discussion on the issues of the day - child-rearing, prejudice, Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, police harassment and religion among them.
"If we had been meeting right now, I'm sure we would be talking about Darryl Gates," said Doug McGlashan, referring to the Los Angeles police chief who has been caught up in a controversy over the way he handled a police brutality case.
Several of the Mateans had worked next to each other over the years during the fair housing campaign and the desegregation of the schools, but in recent years, have retreated from such activities.
When asked to participate in a smaller, more personal group, Willie Swann observed, "I felt like this was a great opportunity to get back into the world."
"It opened a lot of challenges. I didn't realize we also had attitudes about other races," he said.
Rather than get involved in a major citywide extravaganza, Ricki McGlashan noted, "We just wanted to try four couples to see what could happen."
While Len Traubman hoped the meal-sharing might be a model for similar projects in the county as well as nationally, Millie Swann observed, "If nothing else, it has made a difference in our lives."
The subject of racial intolerance came up early, as the couples knew if would. Still, the two white couples were nevertheless shocked to hear about various incidents that have occurred right here in their hometown.
The black couples were not. In matter-of-fact terms, they related stories of being the focus of racial slurs; and of having their children falsely accused of crimes.
When Ricki McGlashan wondered how they could not help but hate white people, Millie Swann responded, "I can't imagine going through life hating people. I'd be miserable."
Freemon Hollands added, "That's when our Christianity kicks in. That helps a lot. We have to have something."
Asked why so many white people deny there is racism, Millie Swann charged, "How do you know unless you get involved with people and go home with them? Of course they are going to say there is no prejudice."
And while they have had to endure racism in their lives, Millie Swann says it has been harder for them to see things happen to their children.
"When I see my children hurting, I hurt a lot. They tell me, 'I've done it this way. Why am I being treated this way?'"
Aside from getting to know one another and breaking down prejudices, Doug McGlashan said the evening potlucks have increased his community awareness. When he picks up The Times and reads about an issue in the North Central neighborhood, for example, he says he wonders what Freemon and Mysie think about it - and realizes it is also his community.
Reflecting on the meal-sharing project, Len Traubman recalled his own youth, growing up in a Jewish household.
"When issues of prejudice came up, I experienced us as a community pulling back in … I think if we had actually included others and had not been so separate, it would have broken down more barriers and prejudices."
In 2006, the four families (photo) are still in touch, although dear Freemon Hollands passed away May 17, 2001.
If you would like to reach out to other ethnic and racial groups in your city in the hopes of starting other mealsharing potlucks, you can contact Libby and Len Traubman at LTRAUBMAN@igc.org. Details of how to start a new group are on their Web site at http://traubman.igc.org/mealshar.htm.
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