Ajo, Arizona/USA 04 01 2018 The village of Ajo near the Organ Pipe cactus national monument

Ajo, Arizona, is the story of a better America

Updated 2:34 PM ET, Fri December 6, 2019

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Deborah Fallows is the co-author with her husband, Atlantic writer James Fallows, of "Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America." An HBO documentary based on the book is currently in production. Fallows is also a fellow at New America. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)Take a walk through the oasis of green grass and palm trees in the central plaza of the tiny Sonoran Desert town of Ajo in southwest Arizona. You're likely to run into a Native American from the Tohono O'odham tribe, a Hispanic from the United States or nearby Mexico, or a white person, whom the whole town refers to as Anglo. These three cultures comprise most of the population of Ajo -- and always have.

Deborah Fallows
You might meet a construction worker, a visiting artist, a teacher, a preacher from one of the two bright-white churches that anchor the plaza, a snowbird or an employee of the Customs and Border Protection, which works checkpoints, the desert and the border with Mexico, some 40 miles to the south.
Some of the older generation would have been mineworkers for Ajo's New Cornelia copper mine, which made for an economic heyday for Ajo through much of the 20th century. At that time, Ajo was a company town, where the mine provided for all its families, although not always equally.
Then came the mine's traumatic closure a generation ago after a drop in copper prices and disputes among the workers and their union. The town slid into disrepair; the hospital and many shops shuttered; the houses of Indian Village and Mexican Town were mostly razed. People tried to "get by."
With a profile like this, where nearly everything that is divisive about modern American life would seem concentrated in this town of a few thousand residents, Ajo might tempt you to think that it contributes to the description of America as "a nation divided," or even "bitterly divided." And yet if you looked at Ajo, not as a test case for national issues, but on its own terms, you would find something very different -- a town that has come together in collaborative ways to save itself.
Ajo's coming together is more common than not, at least as far as what my husband, James Fallows, and I have found in our travels around the entire country since 2013. While the country's national government may be divided, even paralyzed, the towns around this nation are often and strongly acting in a united way, facing their problems, negotiating their solutions and taking action for the greater good of their communities.
    Why are towns working when the national government isn't? Citizens of the towns have told us that they recognize that responsibility finally lies with them; they know what needs to be done, and they can't wait for someone, somewhere to come in and "save" them. People from communities of all sizes, whether 2,500, 25,000 or 250,000, s