SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – The culture war inside and out of Utah has a new hot topic: book bans.

Caitlyn McDonald directs The Center for Local Initiatives of Utah Humanities, a non-profit organization dedicated to popularizing the arts and humanities in Utah. For McDonald, books aren’t just important for a child’s education but for a functioning democracy.

Utah Humanities’ mission is “to empower Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.” For McDonald, the humanities are a form of “human expression” of their experiences in the world. “Humanities can connect us to each other in deep ways.”

One of McDonald’s jobs at Utah Humanities is to help organize “community conversations” which are held on Zoom and open to anyone to participate and talk about a set topic related to Utah and the humanities.

“We get a pretty wide group of ideas from a great mix of people from rural and urban Utah,” says McDonald, describing the zoom events. Their most recent community conversation was about UFOs and Utah, in which McDonald reports that the age of participants ranged from 19-76 years old.

“That’s a pretty incredible bridge across a generational divide,” she says.

Anyone can have a voice at these events, but they are not designed to be a town hall or yelling match. They feature experienced conversation facilitators who help participants listen to each other and engage in positive discussions.

One upcoming community conversation on April 27th will be centered on book bans, and will likely consist of participants from a variety of viewpoints on the issue.

As a non-profit organization, Utah Humanities does not get involved in political issues of book banning. According to McDonald, they do, however, advocate “for a system that allows people to be challenged” by the humanities in a positive way. For her, good books are important to children and youth in Utah because they help them develop critical thinking skills. “Challenging” literature also allows them to be exposed to people and ideas different from themselves, hopefully in order to build compassion and empathy.

McDonald says that Utah Humanities’ goal regarding book bans is to remain non-partisan and non-political, but to help “both sides understand each other.” “Censorship and book banning can threaten the democratic nature of education,” says McDonald, “where a healthy exchange of ideas is important” to help schools create responsible citizens in a healthy democracy. “We need different kinds of ideas for that to happen.”

Finally, McDonald hopes that Utahns will take advantage of her organization’s wide variety of public humanities programs, that they can learn about at their website. She hopes that Utahns won’t think of the humanities “just as an academic field, but an everyday practice” that can benefit parents and children alike.