Three people sit on a hill.

These Americans stepped up to help hold the country together

What builds community in a divisive era? Across the U.S., it's altruists and volunteers dedicated to helping others.

Members of the Blackfeet Nation’s Tatsey family watch for grizzly bears from a safe distance at Badger-Two Medicine—130,000 acres of sacred, forested terrain for the Blackfeet in Montana. The tribe has been involved in a decades long battle against oil and gas development on this land.

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.

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