Denver-Based Apps Aim to Help Multiracial Families Navigate the World

Denver researcher Lynn VanderWielen is the mother of multiracial kids — and now an app developer for parents like herself.
Denver researcher Lynn VanderWielen is the mother of multiracial kids — and now an app developer for parents like herself. Lynn VanderWielen

In the Midwest, they’re commonly called helicopter seeds. Elsewhere, they’re known as whirlygigs or whirlybirds. In England, spinning jennies. But whatever you call them, you know them: the seed harbingers of new growth seeking a place to land, to root, and to grow strong.

The Denver-based app Samahra takes its name from a slightly modified spelling of these winged seed pods that flutter gently down to the ground, carried by the wind and spreading widely in the anemochory manner with which we’re all familiar, at least in the sense of the visual and the idiomatic.

Such is the philosophy of Samahra, an app that dropped in August 2022 for both Apple and Android. It’s focused on multiracial families and multiracial identity, and subdivided into two tracks: one for parents of kids under ten, and another for teens and preteens. It bills itself as “evidence-based,” “intentional,” and “proactive,” and explains on its website that it is “dedicated to parents of multiracial children to support positive, healthy, and celebrated racial identity development.”

In other words: to help these kids spread widely and land safely.

That was entirely the idea, according to founder and CEO Lynn VanderWielen. “The imagery of the seed pod,” she says, “really hit close to home.”

VanderWielen is a researcher with a Ph.D. in the social sciences; she got her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin, then went to Johns-Hopkins for her master's and Virginia Commonwealth for her doctorate. She and her husband, whose ancestry is Nigerian and Russian, landed in Denver some years ago when they both began working for the University of Colorado. VanderWielen is Dutch; their two children, the oldest of whom is now five, are both multiracial.
“We’d always talked a lot about racial justice and equity,” VanderWielen says, “but when you’re bringing a kid into the world, it’s a whole other level of commitment. We knew that our son’s world was going to feel different to him based on his identity.”

Which in turn brought about the central question addressed by Samahra: How do we support our children in knowing that they’re whole? How do we approach supporting them in feeling that they’re worthy of safety and love and the other things the world too often denies kids of color?

And it’s not just that very important question. “I think for multiracial individuals, there’s another layer of complexity there,” says VanderWielen. “How they look, who they’re connected with, how they might feel ‘enough of’ to feel connected to their many heritages.”

Questions of race became far more than theoretical for VanderWielen and her husband in the very first moments of their oldest child’s life. “You’re asked to define their race almost right away,” VanderWielen shares. “I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know, this kid’s a day old!’ And then that follows them, from the pediatrician's office to the school system and onward. Now my kid’s going to be defined exactly as they were at one day old as they enter school.”

This issue of immediate and, to some degree, permanent labeling is only one of the panoply of challenges faced by families of multiracial children. “As an academic, I turned to the literature available, because that’s what we do,” VanderWielen says, laughing. “And there’s a lot of information out there about identity development, and a growing body of work focused on multiracial children.”

In the midst of all that research, VanderWielen was struck with the realization that “this isn’t what normal parents do. Academic literature is behind a million paywalls, and it’s not even accessible for most people. But there’s a lot of great information here. Good stuff that should be translated to families like mine so that we can be thoughtful. So we know what people have learned before.”

VanderWielen started to think about how she could effectively disseminate the information she was gathering. The inspiration for Samahra’s format actually came from her experiences with the weight-loss app Noom. “It has daily readings, and it presents it in short snippets of information that are easily understood and easily put into practice,” she says. “I thought that felt good; as a parent, I’m able to do this. So I thought if a parent had five minutes in a day to do some quick reading, what could they learn? What could they put into action? What could they try out? And then that’s it — they move on to the next day. It just started to make sense as an app.” And so the initial Samahra app was born.

What’s new for Samahra is its upcoming offshoot app, Samahra(Rise), which was “created by mixed teens for mixed teens.” Like its parent app, it’s meant to be a friendly, empowering and affirming place for teens to reflect and connect. Samahra(Rise) makes its debut on February 17, also compatible with both Apple and Android platforms.

The idea came from VanderWielen’s experiences hearing from multiracial adults that they had struggled to find a sense of belonging with their peers during their teen years. “So many of those I’ve talked with say they never felt ‘enough of’ a certain group of peers," she explains. "They were missing a space that was uniquely theirs."

So, VanderWielen says, she “pulled together a youth council of multiracial teens” to learn what they felt and what they’d want to see in the app she had in mind. Four teens made up the council: two from Denver and two from California, all between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. “Right in that age range where identity development is really salient,” she adds.

“They’re all visionaries,” VanderWielen says, smiling with evident pride. “They’re creative, wonderful people who also have this shared goal of creating a space for mixed kids that’s about them. That’s for them, by them.”

VanderWielen also believes strongly in the importance of providing a safe space to talk things through. “Multiracial kids need a place to talk about race in their own terms,” she asserts. “What does race mean? How does race show up? What is privilege? If they aren’t offered a space to discuss all these things, then they learn it from somewhere else, from sources that could be unsupportive. That’s the fear, that those gaps will be filled in by some other information that might be less than helpful.”

“As parents, we want to send our children out into the world as prepared as they can be,” VanderWielen says. “What I hope this work does is to help prepare parents to succeed in that endeavor.”

The core Samahra app is available now for Apple and Android. Samahra(Rise) will officially drop on February 17. For more information on both, see the Samahra website.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen

Latest Stories