What’s the Connection Between Vincent van Gogh’s Life of Painting and My Life of Activism? 

What’s the Connection Between Vincent van Gogh’s Life of Painting and My Life of Activism? 

Recently in a conversation with one of my cousins, we talked about an upcoming adventure we have scheduled on Thanksgiving Day.

van Gogh: The Immersive Experience

I failed miserably in remembering the pertinent details about the event. I searched through a mountain of emails for the ticket confirmation, time, and location. Finally, I found it! Our scheduled time to attend “van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” is on Thanksgiving Day at 4 PM.

I’ve always been fascinated by the relatively short life of Vincent van Gogh and the creative force he was. I tingled with excitement as I listened to an audio track describing the exhibit itself, sprinkled with the lived experiences of an iconic painter. He started painting at the age of twenty-seven, producing over 2000 works of art, ranging from landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and self-portraits.

After a fight with Paul Gauguin, he cut off his ear, then committed himself to an asylum due to mental health unrest. van Gogh died by suicide at the age of thirty-seven. He is recognized posthumously as an influential figure in Western art history.

Yet, I’m not writing this essay about the life of a painter per se. Rather, I’m writing based on a van Gogh quote shared in the audio, “I dream my painting, and I paint my dream.” You may be wondering: What in the world do these words spoken by a man living, painting, and communicating in the twentieth century have to do with a woman living, coaching, and communicating in the twenty-first century? 

That question epitomizes creativity in the sense that what we create begins with a dream, a vision, or a purpose that only we can see. Then it progresses into active creation, manifestation, change, and transformation that happens as we brush stroke strategies and plans to move from where we are to where we desire to be, either personally, socially, professionally, politically, or economically.

Such is the case as I created the latest expression of my work as a transformational life coach; it’s what I call Activism Through Coaching. And it all began with a three-month old melanized baby boy, named Cairo. He was born in March 2020 amidst the chaos as we hunkered down under COVID quarantine; as we witnessed Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd; and as we witnessed global protesting spearheaded by the Black Lives Matter movement.

If you’ve heard my story before you know that as my daughters prepared for a Black Lives Matter protest in Pittsburgh, we discussed generational protesting in my family. A question emerged from the discussion that ignited the heart of a mother and the passion of a grandmother:

The Cairo Question

Will Cairo have to protest in his lifetime for the birthright to freely and peacefully exist in the skin in which he was born?

Three things evolved out of that question—my book, Cultivating Change from the Inside Out: The Power of Being Humanan Activism Through Coaching model based on a transformational journey towards antiracism; and InflexionPoint Podcast, a brave space for conversations about racism, personal transformation, and accountability

Unlike our ancestors who traversed the Middle Passage of enslavement, Cairo wasn’t greeted with whips and chains as he entered a new world. Yet the intention to rob him of his identity and bring him under subjection in a racialized society is the same. As he grows older, the false premise of white supremacy expects him to fall into a preassigned legal, political, social, and economic place at the back of the line, at the risk of his dreams being systematically broken or deferred. For me the answer to The Cairo Question is relatively simple yet immensely complex: Cairo will not have to protest for the birthright to freely and peacefully exist in the skin in which he was born if we collectively take courageous action to… 

  • put our faith in a different future where racism has been eradicated; 
  • work to actively dismantle racism piece by piece, critically examining and discussing its intricate components;
  • and harmonize historical truth with lived experiences with racism and the false premise of white supremacy.

“I dream my painting, and I paint my dream.”
—Vincent van Gogh

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun? Or does it explode?”— Langston Hughes

I dream of eradicating racism. I paint the dream by brush stroking a journey of courageous conversations focused on critical self-reflection, relationship-building, and accountability. The future I paint for my grandson is based on three essential concepts from Robert Livingston, Harvard University Professor and author of The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations. 

  • Understanding the problem of racism and where it comes from
  • Caring enough about the problem and the people it harms
  • Contributing to solve the problem

Join the Conversation

As a personal transformation expert my role is to ask questions, inform, and empower for the sake of change. Thus, conversation becomes a social exchange that dispels the fear that talking about race will only make it worse.

The reality is this: The Cairo Question depends on people like you putting your faith in a different future for generations of children just like Cairo. Ultimately, we all share the accountability for what society looks like now and in the future. What will it look like in 15 years when Cairo is the same age as Trayvon Martin when his dream of being twenty-seven was systematically broken by George Zimmerman? What role will you play in what it looks like? 

I leave you with these accountability questions to further ponder within yourself.

Do I care enough about the future of a little black boy to step into the conversation? Am I willing to…

  • Listen and learn all I can about racism and acknowledge the disruptive impact it has on our society?
  • Be a part of the solution to an insidious problem by cultivating change from within myself first, then out into the world?  
  • Be immersed in critical self-reflection to understand my own deep-seated thoughts, beliefs, and ideas about racism?
  • Put my faith in a different future through my own words, actions, and behaviors?



“But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.” —1 John 2:11

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