By Jane Golden

and Abby Stamelman Hocky

Identity matters. Each of us has his or her own unique hybrid identity - a reflection of our experiences, as well as the experiences of people who are close to us and those who have come before us. And we want nothing more than to be heard and understood.

When our stories are received and represented with attention and respect, something unlocks and blooms within us. And this, in turn, allows us more room to open our hearts and minds to the people around us.

There is an imperative in this country, right now, to replace images and ideas that stir hate and division with new ones that ignite compassion and empathy. In this fast-paced environment, with news that challenges our values every day, we need to build relationships of trust and understanding.

Many of us are looking back at the Civil Rights Movement for a touchstone of how our nation has endured and moved through difficult times. In a 2014 interview on NPR, the late African American historian Vincent Harding said, "When it comes to creating a multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious democracy, we are still a developing nation." He quoted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who said we need three things: courage, compassion, and creativity.

In this spirit, the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia and Mural Arts Philadelphia will team up in 2017 with artist JJ Tiziou and WHYY radio producer Elisabeth Perez-Luna for "Paths of Understanding," a new public art project that asserts the value of diversity and fosters an appreciation of commonality within difference.

The project builds on a yearlong "journey of listening" throughout the Interfaith Center's Old City neighborhood, and multiple conversations with leaders of historic religious congregations, civic groups, and contemporary museums.

Here, on the walls of the very birthplace of democracy, an incredible narrative will emerge, made up of photographs of people from all different faiths, backgrounds, and perspectives, creating a beautiful tapestry of human beings that represents themes of possibility, hope, and healing - particularly around issues of religious and cultural division. A rich audio component - an "audio mural" of sorts - will complement Tiziou's visuals and provide guidance and navigation for a wide range of voices and experiences.

Art has power. It can soothe us, inspire us to make a difference, and spur us on to action. It reflects the critical issues that we face as a society, and it provides clarity during challenging times.

We use art to articulate emotion, to learn from each other, and to question our assumptions - and, in contentious times, we must be unafraid and willing to have conversations and explore topics that might feel uncomfortable.

We inhabit an increasingly fragmented world, one that calls for our greatest imagination and our strongest sense of collaboration. This work requires patience, commitment, and investment, from strong partners who value integrity and authenticity.

"Paths of Understanding" aims to provide a space for mutuality, where we can welcome each other's ideas in a climate of respect.

Conflict exists. We know that. How we respond to it is what matters. Do we embrace our differences and find common ground, or turn our backs on each other?

We know from experience that acknowledging cultural diversity can be empowering, and that sharing our stories, the very essence of what makes us human, is the first step to fostering empathy and compassion.

We are privileged to live in a city that values diversity, and both Mural Arts Philadelphia and the Interfaith Center call upon all Philadelphians to join us in celebrating our rich tapestry, resisting the normalization of prejudice, and standing up for marginalized communities.

Now more than ever, we need to work together to move beyond hate, and even beyond tolerance, to true paths of learning, compassion, and understanding.

Jane Golden is executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. jane.golden@muralarts.org

Abby Stamelman Hocky is executive director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia. ash@interfaithcenterpa.org