Denver-Based Samahra Apps Help Multiracial Families Navigate World
In the Midwest, they are commonly called helicopter seeds. Elsewhere they are known as whirlygigs or whirlybirds. In England, spinning jennies. But whatever you call them, you know them: the seed precursors of new growth looking for a place to land, to take 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 to the ground, carried by the wind and spread widely in the anemochory fashion we’re all familiar with, at least in the sense of the visual and the idiomatic.
That’s the philosophy of Samahra, an app that dropped in August 2022 for both Apple and Android. It is focused on multiracial families and multiracial identity, and is divided into two tracks: one for parents of children under 10, and another for teenagers and pre-teens. 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 children spread widely and land safely.
That was entirely the idea, according to founder and CEO Lynn VanderWielen. “The images of the seed pod,” she says, “really hit close to home.”
VanderWielen is a researcher with a PhD in the social sciences; she earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, went to Johns-Hopkins for her master’s degree and Virginia Commonwealth for her doctorate. She and her husband, whose ancestry is Nigerian and Russian, landed in Denver a few years ago when they both started working for the University of Colorado. VanderWielen, as her name suggests, is Dutch; their two children, the oldest of whom is now 5, are both multiracial.
click to enlarge “We’ve always talked a lot about racial justice and equity,” says VanderWielen, “but when you bring a child into the world, it’s a whole other level of commitment. We knew our son’s world was going to feel different to him based on his identity.”
Which in turn brought about the central question that Samahra addressed: How do we support our children in knowing that they are whole? How do we approach supporting them in feeling that they are worthy of safety and love and the other things that the world too often denies children of color?
And it’s not just that very important question. “I think for multiracial individuals, there’s another layer of complexity there,” VanderWielen says. “What they look like, who they’re connected to, how they might feel ‘enough of’ to feel connected to their many heritages.”
In the very first moments of their eldest child’s life, questions of race became much more than theoretical for VanderWielen and her husband. “You’re asked to define their race almost immediately,” shares VanderWielen. “I’m like ‘well, I don’t know, this kid is a day old!’ And then it follows them, from the pediatrician’s office to the school system and beyond. Now my child is going to be defined exactly as they were one day old when they went to school.”
This issue of immediate and to some extent permanent labeling is only one of a series of challenges that families of multiracial children face. “As an academic, I turned to the available literature, because that’s what we do,” says VanderWielen with a laugh. “And there’s a lot of information out there about identity development, and a growing body of work focused on multiracial kids.”
In the midst of all that research, VanderWielen was struck with the realization that “this is not what normal parents do. Academic literature is behind a million paywalls, and it’s not even accessible to most people. But there is a lot of good information here. Good stuff that needs to be translated to families like mine so we can be considerate. So we know what people have learned before.”
VanderWielen began to think about how she could effectively disseminate the information she was collecting. 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 bits of information that are easy to understand and easy to put into practice,” she says. “I thought it felt good; as a parent I can do it. So I thought if a parent had five minutes a day to read quickly, what could they learn? What could they implement? What could they try? 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.
New for Samahra is its upcoming spin-off app, Samahra(Rise), which is “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 struggled to find a sense of belonging with their peers during their teenage years. “So many of those I’ve spoken to say they’ve never felt ‘enough’ from a certain peer group,” she explains. “They missed a space that was uniquely theirs.
So, says VanderWielen, she “assembled a youth council of multiracial teenagers” to find out what they felt and what they would like to see in the app she had in mind. Four teenagers made up the council: two from Denver and two from California, all between the ages of 14 and 16. “Right in that age group where identity development is really noticeable,” she adds.
“They are all visionaries,” says VanderWielen, smiling with obvious pride. “They are creative, wonderful people who also have this shared goal of creating a space for mixed kids that is all about them. It’s for them, by them.”
VanderWielen also strongly believes 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 appear? What is privilege? If they are not offered a space to discuss all these things, then they learn it from somewhere else, from sources that cannot support it. It is the fear that those gaps will be filled by other information that may be less than useful.”
“As parents, we want to send our children out into the world as prepared as they can be,” says VanderWielen. “What I hope this work does is help prepare parents to succeed in that endeavor.”
The core Samahra app is now available for Apple and Android. Samahra(Rise) will officially release on February 17th. For more information on both, see the Samahra website.