They are the glue that holds communities together, stepping up to assist their neighbors in times of crisis, need, and other challenges. Some are volunteers whose projects uplift their neighborhoods; others work to preserve their community’s culture. Still others are Good Samaritans who help older residents get basic necessities, or assist those displaced by disaster. And on and on.
Throughout U.S. history, such altruists have stitched a sense of unity among their neighbors. Nearly 190 years ago, in his book Democracy in America, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by how much of life in the young nation revolved around community-based leaders and groups. He saw them as local democracies that set social mores and helped ward off tyranny.
During the past five years, National Geographic journalists traveled across the United States to see how the ideas Tocqueville described are holding up in a country that can seem inexorably divided by race, income, politics, and religion. They visited health workers, farmers, coal miners, students, and many more to identify a sampling of those who are sewing the threads of community in today’s America.
What the journalists found most pressing was not division shaped by politics or other beliefs, but rather a deep need that unites people. Whether it was because of a lack of healthy food in Detroit or the 2018 fires that ravaged the West Coast, many stressed communities are barely holding things together. But they’re resilient, thanks partly to residents who dedicate much of their lives to helping their neighbors. Here are a few of those keepers of community.—The Editors
CHAPTER I: THE GUARDIANS
On a mission to save Native land and culture
Traveling to the sacred lands of Badger-Two Medicine, Montana, is a journey of two parts. The first starts on a solitary road that runs to a horizon split into green and blue, cutting across broad plains and big sky. On the left is Heart Butte mountain, where fire-charred vegetation rests on land that once hoisted emerald pines toward the heavens. Farther along, the road cuts between the Twin Lakes and becomes only tire tracks in the dirt. It’s not long before you leave the car and mount a horse for a short ride up one last jagged, rocky incline to a plateau overlooking a gigantic expanse of nature.
On this day, our path farther into Badger-Two Medicine—130,000 acres of sacred, forested terrain for the Blackfeet Nation—is temporarily blocked by three grizzlies.
This is land where, in the 1980s, the U.S. government granted 47 leases to pave the way for oil and gas drilling, a move vigorously opposed by the Blackfeet. The land’s beauty is undeniable: Blackfeet leaders say that six years ago, when 17 oil leases remained, Devon Energy agreed to return the 15 it held after company representatives visited tribal elders and recognized the land’s magnificence. (At the time, Sioux protests over a proposed pipeline in North Dakota also had drawn unfavorable attention to those seeking to drill on Indigenous peoples’ land.)
Leases that belonged to Louisiana-based Solenex LLC were canceled by the Obama administration in 2016, a decision upheld in court in 2020. The Blackfeet, alongside activists and environmental groups, continue to fight appeals by Solenex.
The effort to protect the land and prevent oil and gas drilling is one of two main causes that are the focus of tribal leaders and at the center of Blackfeet life. The Blackfeet have fought energy-related development in the region bordering the approximately 1.5 million-acre reservation and Glacier National Park. It’s a battle that reflects many of the conflicts that date to the beginning of the United States’ expansion across the continent: the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans, its imposition of reservations, and its acquisition of Native lands.
The other cause for Blackfeet leaders is teaching traditions to a generation that many elders say is plagued by problems they link to the influences of Western culture.
“Sacred areas are tied to places that connect our people, families, and individuals to origin stories, spiritual experiences, and resources needed for our ways and survival,” Terry Tatsey, whose family has worked to protect the land and educate children on Blackfeet history, said in an email. It’s important to connect young Blackfeet to “the practices, values, protection, and stories of our relationship to all things.”
During his travels across the United States in the early 19th century, Tocqueville noted Congress’s actions to claim Native lands, quoting from legislative documents that described the government’s strategy to pay tribes for their land based on what it would be worth after the game on it “is fled or destroyed.”
The documents state that to the government, paying Native Americans a fraction of their land’s worth and removing them from it would be more convenient and “agreeable to the forms of justice, as well as more merciful, than to assert the possession of them by the sword.”
The Blackfeet are still fighting the effects of this strategy, and the role Badger-Two Medicine has played in keeping culture and spirit alive here is impossible to replicate, archaeologist Maria Nieves Zedeño says. It’s a place, she says, where the Blackfeet historically could “be free”—and perform ceremonies such as Sun Dances outside the purview of missionaries and government agents, without persecution.
Like Tatsey, John Murray, a historic preservation officer for the Blackfeet, fears the tribe is at risk of forgetting its traditions. Young people living in downtown Browning, Montana—headquarters for the Blackfeet Indian Reservation—face the challenges of poverty, drug addiction, and suicide.
Those problems have plagued a community where, in the words of the late chief Earl Old Person, some “strive to come back from Western influence,” while others try to embrace it.
In an effort to link younger generations with their roots, Blackfeet leaders take children on field trips throughout the sacred land to teach them about the ancestors who lived there and the value in keeping it free of development. The plants, the wildlife, and the soil all have ties to the tribe’s cultural traditions.
Zedeño, who has worked alongside Murray for years, leads an archaeological dig that focuses on land where Blackfeet ancestors practiced a now extinct way of life. Its findings provided an extensive record of Blackfeet existence on the land for the lawsuits that kept Murray entangled in the decades-long battle against drilling leases.
“It’s been a long road—35 years or so—but there are no wells up there,” Murray says. “There will never be drilling in Badger-Two Medicine.”
The story of the Blackfeet and Badger-Two Medicine is about protecting one of America’s Native lands—a place at the genesis of Indigenous history and creation stories, the foundation of every value in Blackfeet culture and community: family, education, identity, survival.
The Blackfeet see the land as their keeper. It’s where they learned about buffalo running and pack building from the wolves and got their songs from the birds. The Blackfeet way of life is imbued with the spirit of the land. One without the other means both cease to exist in the same way. Leaders are passing on those lessons, with increasing urgency, to Blackfeet in Browning. Each July, the nation’s traditions are honored at the North American Indian Days celebration.
The annual parade “brings our traditions back to people living in the downtown,” says Darrell DeRoche, a Blackfeet youth mentor. “There are some people here who have never been to Badger-Two. We are doing our best to change that, bring our traditions here, and bring people to the land. To keep our history strong.”
CHAPTER II: THE GARDENER
He planted some crops, and grew so much more
If Mark Covington had a lookout point to see the duality of life in his Detroit neighborhood, the corner of Georgia Street and Vinton Avenue would be it.
At first you might notice what’s officially called blight—the decaying, boarded-up homes and the eeriness of dereliction. But stand a minute longer on the corner, and in the quiet of the morning you might hear the grunt of a pig, then two or three. Suddenly, there’s a ruckus. The pigs—five American guinea hogs, to be exact—have gotten out again.
The gate to the Georgia Street Community Collective has been left ajar, and the pigs are on the loose outside their pen. Covington, founder of the collective and its urban farm, isn’t far behind.
It’s a typical morning scene at the collective. Early in the day, the vibrant green crops giving life to tomatoes, cabbages, eggplants, legumes, and more are awash with gold, as if being watered by the sun. The sounds of dogs and goats, pigs, roosters, and a colony of stirring bees drown out the sounds of the city. All at once the neighborhood blight, though still just across the street, feels at a distance.
In a place where many homes and shops are shuttered or burned out, Covington reflects what Tocqueville called the “spirit of provincial liberty”—community participation in self-governing—amid what Covington calls “systemic demise.”
“The city has a history of neglecting us,” Covington says. He’s focused on bringing back the lively neighborhood where he grew up—even as years of neglect have led some longtime residents to flee. To him, community is about “getting in where you fit in.”
Covington’s odyssey began after he lost his job at a hazardous-waste facility in Sterling Heights, Michigan, in 2007. Within a couple of months he had returned to his childhood street. Walking to a store one day, he saw garbage piled high in vacant, abandoned lots.
“It was dirty,” he says. “There were always vacant lots, but they had always been maintained for children to play on. I knew that if I just cleaned them up, people would dump on them again, but if I planted stuff, they might not.”
Covington started with a small community garden, and almost immediately neighbors began asking to participate. One mother sent three children to help him build a larger garden where the kids could grow food, stay busy during the summer, and add structure to their lives. When older residents dropped by to recount their difficulty paying for medicine and food, Covington made the garden a little bigger so they could pick what they needed. To his surprise, the community began to grow around the growth of his garden.
Little by little the seeds, now literal and figurative, took root, as the hands on the garden that would evolve into a farm multiplied. The collective now owns 15 lots, purchased from the city with donations and grants. How the animals—goats, pigs, ducks, chickens, turkeys, honeybees, two dogs, and a cat—came to live at the farm is a story of serendipitous accumulation. They now make up a small collection that helps educate visitors.
What began as an effort to remove trash and deter littering has turned the intersection of Georgia and Vinton into a site of communion. On one corner: a public garden with vegetable and flower beds, a movie screen, and picnic tables. On another: the fruit orchard and pollinator garden. On another: a farm and a community center in a building that was established with the help of a benefactor and granted to the collective by a probate court judge. Nearby are garlic beds and a greenhouse, funded by a grant.
“It’s somewhat spiritual for me,” Covington says. “It’s like a sanctuary. People come here and don’t want to leave.”
CHAPTER III: THE VOLUNTEER
Determined to help fellow Somali refugees adapt to a new homeland
By 3:30 a.m. the house is already warm with the aromas of pasta and goat stewed in spices. Ifrah Yusuf, 30, has been up for half an hour and completed the first of five prayer sessions for the day.
She moves swiftly and with purpose in her spotted pink baati dress and bright yellow headscarf, packing up the day’s meals into two matching, clear plastic backpacks for both her husband, Abdulkadir, 36, and herself. It’s barely five o’clock when the couple, Somali immigrants, leave for work at the local Tyson meatpacking plant in Garden City, Kansas.
Weekdays are long and hard on the body, but weekends are not any slower.
The Somali community here is sizable, though no infrastructure for it exists. Previously, the work of structural support was done by a nonprofit organization called LiveWell, which offered assistance programs and services to the growing Somali population. LiveWell—a community outreach coalition that serves the homeless, at-risk youth, older adults, and immigrants—also paid Yusuf to provide caretaking to Somalis. She now provides that service for free—helping neighbors with medical needs like refilling prescriptions, administering medicine, home care, or preparing meals and getting groceries. When funding dried up for Livewell a little more than two years ago, Yusuf just kept caring for her neighbors on her own time and with her own money or with help from others, because the need didn’t dry up with the money.
“I decided to help in my community because we don’t have guidance or any person who is supporting the Somali community,” Yusuf says. “My English isn’t perfect, but I was learning, and I understand, so I help.”
CHAPTER IV: THE CAREGIVERS
A healing touch for those who lost everything
For residents here, November 8, 2018, was life changing.
The Camp fire, the deadliest firestorm in California’s modern history—and one of the most devastating in the United States in a hundred years—had scorched the town of Paradise in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Eighty-five people were killed in Butte County, about 50,000 displaced. Roughly 19,000 structures—including 14,000 homes—were destroyed.
Federally funded aid and nonprofit humanitarian organizations came and went. In some ways it was just as well, because there seems to be a consensus in Paradise that long-term assistance came with too many restrictions. So residents largely declined it.
Birgitte Randall, a nurse, says many who remain in the town are living without a safety net. And everyone was affected, so residents couldn’t lean on neighbors who’d likely lost their homes and jobs themselves.
Feather River Hospital was the biggest employer in town and was closed for a while after the fire. It’s where Randall and her mother, Denise Gundersen, also a nurse, had worked. “We gave good care at that hospital,” Randall says.
Randall and her sister, Elisabeth Gundersen, a nurse practitioner, realized there were several gaping holes in aid. Among them: medical care and housing, which were long-standing problems in the county, one of California’s poorest.
Together, the sisters and their mother helped create what became Medspire Health. It started as triage. They also put out calls on social media for help. Elisabeth returned to Paradise from San Francisco, where she had lived and worked, Denise joined from neighboring Magalia, and they held their first mobile clinic in March 2019. The clinic essentially is made up of tables and chairs set up sometimes in a building, other times in tents. It relies on donations to provide free care.
“We used our community to get what we needed,” Elisabeth says. “We would get what we needed without the rules.”
Drawing from a network of volunteers, they do things made difficult by the lack of resources: refill prescriptions, order lab tests, replace documents lost in the fire, and check vital signs. They host quarterly clinics, give vaccines, provide mental health counseling, and offer general wellness screenings. When the pandemic hit, they set up a 24-hour phone line to ensure that patients with chronic conditions, or who were afraid to leave their homes, could get care. They make house calls or arrange for doctors to do so. The Medspire team also works telehealth lines and treats patients living in tent cities.
“When you’re poor and you need services, the system really beats you down. That can be degrading,” Elisabeth says. Some patients “feel worthless, and their health is de-prioritized because of that, so we try to do concierge Medicare for poor people.”
Chip Bantewski, who was one of Denise’s patients at the hospital, was discharged the day before the fire. Today he relies on Medspire for medical care. Elisabeth and Denise meet him with supplies in hand before dressing the diabetes-related sores on his legs.
Bantewski describes his sores as phantoms he can feel but not see. Elisabeth and Denise, meanwhile, teach his companion the wrapping technique so she can dress his legs at home. Almost four years after the fire, Bantewski is living in a tent trailer. The Medspire team is trying to find him a proper trailer before winter.
“We don’t care about who you are, if you have insurance, if you’re rich or poor,” Elisabeth says. “You need health care; we know how to do it. Let’s just do it.”
CHAPTER V: THE MATRIARCH
Using tough love to keep order
Meeting Gloria “Miss Gigi” Johnson was serendipitous. Following a lead to the Agape Outreach Ministries, National Geographic team members found ourselves enveloped by her welcoming arms on the day Pastor Daron Lee was preaching to the congregation in Warner Robins, Georgia, about the Good Samaritan. The service was jubilant, filling the small white church with red double doors to the brim with warm air and loud music. Johnson was handing out hugs and invitations for boiled meats and green beans.
The 63-year-old—a recovering addict who has battled her own demons—endured her path and her children’s through the criminal justice system and sees the plight of her neighborhood’s young people. She says that somewhere along the way, God delivered her from her suffering and equipped her to “keep order” in her community. It’s a place where children are growing up in need of fierce advocacy. The role of a matriarch is one Johnson has taken on devotedly, as a nurturer and self-proclaimed disciplinarian. Despite being tired, she says, she’s on the right track.
“I lost out on a lot of things in life messing around with drugs,” she says.
The things fear stopped her from doing in her own life, Johnson says, she is now doing through and with the children she takes care of. At church, Johnson is on her feet and attentive as Pastor Lee brings his community prayers to a close for the service.
“Father God, touch the youth.” Lee speaks into the microphone as Johnson listens and nods her head. “Keep them out of hurt and out of danger’s ways. During this school year, Father God, may they not be a statistic of death and a statistic caught up in the law enforcement world, Father God.”
For Johnson, keeping close to her faith is about keeping control, and keeping control is necessary to maintain the community. Her religion and her advocacy go hand in hand, embodying what Tocqueville called “the spirit of patriotism.”
“Miss Gigi is the community mother,” says Larry Curtis, a local businessman, advocate, and Department of Defense equipment specialist who works at Robins Air Force Base.
At the time of our visit in 2018, Johnson had three children living in her home—two whose parents were both serving prison sentences, and another whose mother had simply moved away.
On this day, Johnson sat at her dining room table, her purple fingernails feverishly flipping a gray crayon as she talked about her life under the cloud of a drug addiction that began when she was 16, and how her grandchildren became the catalyst for her change.
Over the entryway of her home hangs a small wooden plaque that reads: “Gigi & Papa’s, where memories are made and children are spoiled,” though the children here are anything but.
“My mother gave me tough love,” Johnson says. “I remember going to make a [drug] sale, and I came back home and there was a note on the door saying, ‘I have taken the kids … if you’d like to live here and kill yourself, you do it. But you won’t kill my grandkids with you.’”
Though her mother is no longer with her, that tough love has found its way back into the community through Johnson, who believes in constructive discipline through “chastising” rather than punishing.
“The one thing I won’t do with these kids is call them bad,” she says. “I tell them they are mischievous. I won’t tell them I’m punishing them. I tell them I’m chastising them. I try not to use words that I think are unhealthy for them.”
At Westside Elementary School, everyone knows her. Most of the neighborhood parents have put her name on their children’s parental contact list at school. So if the kids are acting up, they call Johnson.
A community group she’s part of has adopted neighborhood schools that rely on donations and volunteer services to keep up with maintenance and help students in need. And when a school needs help with a student, she gets that call saying, “Miss Gigi, do you know this child?”
“Uh-huh,” she tells them. “I’ll be right on up there.”
CHAPTER VI: THE PROVIDERS
Fulfilling the legacy of an unforgettable leader
Before her death at the age of 79 late last year, Sonia Ventura evoked a youthful aura. Even seeing her at a distance, standing beneath the beating sun on hot gravel and surrounded by roosters, the first thing you noticed was the way her hands danced. She spoke fast and without breaks, gesturing wildly as she moved in conversation, effortlessly, between God and gossip. She had stories about everyone.
Born on the small island of Vieques off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, which Viequenses call “the colony of a colony,” she was raised in New York before returning to her roots in 2003. There, she found her people in a struggle that was bad enough before the damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017 and the days of COVID-19.
The remote island is perhaps best known for having been a U.S. Navy bomb training range and testing site, for which it became embroiled in an ongoing fight over astronomically high cancer rates that prompted decades of scientific study and congressional concession pointing to military pollution—specifically the use of plutonium and Agent Orange. But the island also struggles with an overburdened medical system that no longer exists, a majority-elderly population—with many veterans—and only one, unreliable, way to the mainland and emergency care: a ferry that may or may not run, depending on the day.
Many of the older residents were in dire need of care, but they refused to leave. So to help improve the quality of life for Viequenses, Ventura started an aid organization called Corefi—Concerned Residents for Improvement.
The work she began with more than 60 volunteers continues. When she led the organization, they ran errands for neighbors in need, delivered groceries to them, accompanied them to medical appointments, and provided wheelchairs, walkers, or whatever else was needed.
“Those shoes will never be filled,” Elizabeth Rosario, Corefi’s new president, says of Ventura. “She was sparkling, a walking heart, a big heart with big eyes and big hands to give away. She never did small. Everything was big.”
With a smaller group of 15 volunteers, the nonprofit organization, which relies mostly on donations and grants for funding, could use some beds and medications for distribution to clients. But right now it’s focused on staying in operation and stocking a kitchen where food is prepared for weekly deliveries to as many as 45 people, most of whom are bedridden.
“I hear her every time, like she is whispering to me, ‘This, this, this, remember this. Don’t worry,’ ” Rosario says of the late leader. “It’s like a little miracle every day, just keeping this together. We don’t have AC, mosquitoes are everywhere, but we have the core, the basement, the foundation. She worked hard to leave that foundation. And this is something that has to be done. It is a legacy.”
Before her death from complications related to COVID, Ventura would see five to eight clients most days, depending on what they needed. And, despite asking neighbors not to show up at her house, she would regularly find a line of people at her front door in the mornings seeking help.
“For me there is no weekend, no holiday, no birthday, no anniversary because the need does not wait,” she said in an interview before her death in November 2021. “Emergency does not wait. So if there is need, I work.”
Those now taking up her call to serve say they are struggling but determined to forge ahead.
“She taught me her ways, her routes, her clients, her mercy with people, that special touch, how she wanted things to be done. And only now I’m starting to understand,” Rosario says. “Sonia knew everyone by name, every need, and it’s a big responsibility. But we have to keep going.”
CHAPTER VII: THE ADVOCATE
Saving a newspaper and the connection to remote communities
Spend a little time at the Welch News, and it becomes clear that the staff’s devotion to its readers begins at the printing press before bleeding out like runaway ink and finally coming to rest contentedly at the homes of its roughly 3,000 subscribers across the mountain community in West Virginia’s Appalachia.
On this Wednesday in 2019, the staff is gathered around the machine in anticipation of the first copy marking one year since Missy Nester placed a last-minute bid to purchase the only remaining local newspaper in McDowell County, saving it from being shuttered.
“We’re the only news source in the poorest county in West Virginia, and—being that we’re the poorest county—media sources that surround us come in to tell only the negative stories of our county,” Nester says. “It’s really important for us to tell the positive stories about our county and encourage our community.”
Nester remembers visiting the newspaper office while she was in high school. Her mother worked in circulation 57 years before Nester came to own the paper, and her sister served as an editor as well. For Nester, buying the paper was a personal endeavor as much as a business acquisition or a journalistic imperative. It was about people like the women of her family who made a home here.
“The newspaper came back to me. It really found me,” Nester says. “The ink gets in your blood.”
Once the Welch News was in her hands, she had to figure out how she and only a handful of employees would keep it running. Most of downtown Welch is in disrepair, with the majority of storefronts abandoned, save for a few small businesses, government services, and the newspaper.
Welch, the seat of McDowell County and a city built by and for the coal industry, experienced a relatively quick and steady decline in everything from residents and employment to goods, services, and education after the industry with the highest paying work in the area dried up and took the city’s population and economy with it.
Feeling largely abandoned by government, Nester says, Welch is a place where many of a resident’s needs are met by the community—a neighbor, local business, councilman, or friend, and sometimes all of these in one—and the paper plays a central role in those relationships. Publishing coal-mine announcements, which is legally required in the event that locals want to organize protests, or tax-delinquency notices may seem banal, but Nester knows that even if only one out of a hundred residents reads them, they could save somebody’s home.
“A lot of people won’t look at the paper, but your neighbor will,” Nester says. “And your neighbor will call you and say, ‘Hey, I saw your name in the paper.’ Otherwise, people would lose their property without even knowing it was coming.”
When the paper is ready to go out on its all-volunteer-driven delivery route, which stretches for nearly six hours, some newspapers find their way into the hands of the older residents who make up a significant segment of the county’s population. The paper often comes with medicine or a carton of milk they couldn’t otherwise get. Sometimes the volunteer carrier is the only person those subscribers will see all week.
“A lot of people have no internet access, phone service that’s unreliable,” Nester says. “So we think it’s important to drive to their homes and bring them the newspaper and say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ ”
For Nester and her publication, what Tocqueville called the “spirit of the press” is less about the facts, less about the information—though the value of that work in a community with no other news source is undeniable—and more about the message delivered through the medium. It’s about seeking contact with neighbors across the far reaches of sometimes solitary geographies. And in the confusion of a COVID-19 pandemic made all the more rabid by misinformation, Nester bought a second small mountain publication.
“I’m going to print until I run out of paper,” she says.
Additional funding for photography in this project was provided by CatchLight.
This is multimedia journalist Rebecca Lee Sanchez’s first story for National Geographic. Andrea Bruce photographed a story about women in politics around the world for the June 2020 issue.
A version of this story appears in the September 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.