Inspiration comes in many forms. It can be a beautiful view, a moving quote, a touching story, or an accomplished figure. Touring three national parks with Dominique Dawes, inspiration resonated in all its forms.

Dominique Dawes, known in the American Olympic gold-medal gymnast community as “Awesome Dawesome,” visited Washington, D.C. to learn about three incredible national parks that preserve stories of equality – both the struggles for civil and women’s rights. Her message? That national parks are for everyone, including people of all races, genders, and even those who are not typically outdoorsy (like Dawes herself).

“I always thought to enjoy parks you had to be an outdoorsy person, and I am absolutely not an outdoorsy person, but when I thought about these experiences my husband and I have had in our last four years of marriage, we have been to so many national parks,” Dawes said. Some of the parks the couple visited include lesser-known parks as well, which they found at FindYourPark.com.

In person, Dawes is as friendly and humble as she appears on TV. She stands with strength, smiles with sincerity, and speaks with kindness. As she joined the National Park Service and National Park Foundation for an Equality 101 tour of D.C.’s lesser-known parks, she listened intently as park rangers told her stories about historic heroes who were leaders in movements for civil rights, women’s suffrage, and the abolition of slavery, asking thoughtful questions and taking in the scenes around her.

Photo by Nigel Peterson

The first stop on her tour was probably the most well-known of the three sites: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Every aspect of the memorial is symbolic, with Dr. King sculpted in a stone mountain engraved with the words, “Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope” on its side. The ranger pointed out that this memorial stands in an area dominated by tributes to respected former presidents like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson. Dr. King was not a president, nor did he hold a prestigious role in the government, but his powerful acts and mission of peace and equality created a lasting impact on our nation.

“He wasn’t a president. He wasn’t rich. He wasn’t even white, at a time when that meant every door was closed, and yet the trueness of his message, the strength of his character, the sharpness of his intellect, and that selflessness, the willingness to sacrifice everything for others — he changed us for the better,” Park Ranger John Kirkpatrick said about why this park is so special. “This is actually a park that is meant to be an investment; we expect some return on that investment. We want to generate better citizens. You coming here means that you are hopefully inspired.”

Photo by Nigel Peterson

Dawes continued on to Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, a recent addition to the National Park System and a compelling example of the National Park Foundation’s Centennial Campaign for America’s National Parks in action.

The house is packed with sculptures of empowered women who fought for women’s suffrage and rights throughout history. Dawes smiled by signs that proclaimed “Failure is impossible,” and, “This is what a leader looks like.” She took in the stories of mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives who fought for their rights during a time when their opinions weren’t considered by society.

Today the garden basement of the house is still a working office for the National Woman’s Party. Upstairs, National Park Service rangers host tours, while downstairs women work devotedly on pitches for new ways to bring equality to women in America.

“Let’s go talk about some interesting ladies that I like to say made her-story, not history,” Park Guide Lauren Devore said as she guided Dawes into the next room. “And because well-behaved women rarely make her-story, we’re going to talk about some agitators.”

Photo by Nigel Peterson

The last stop on Dawes’s journey to find her park was Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. She learned about the life of a man on a constant quest for knowledge, despite his upbringing as a slave. She walked around the house, looking into bedrooms and seeing books, musical instruments, portraits, and, to her amusement, workout equipment that belonged to Douglass during his life as an abolitionist activist.

At the end Park Ranger John McCaskill, explained how sites like this one document the lives of brave people in history and inspired him to achieve more. In high school, he was an unmotivated student, but he decided to turn his life around. Today he is a riveting park ranger who graduated with three master’s degrees and a 4.0 GPA.

“Here’s what I realize at this point in my life: Every opportunity I’ve ever had and will ever have has been paid for by the people who came before me, so I cannot squander their sacrifice. But I’m also responsible for those who are coming after me. Every week we have elementary [students], middle schoolers, high schoolers, college kids coming through that door. And I tell folks, ‘Don’t be fooled, future doctors, engineers, preachers, teachers, scientists, college professors are coming through that door. The cure for cancer could be walking through that door next week. Balanced budget could be walking through that door next week.’” Reflecting on the power of Douglass’s life story, McCaskill said, “This is a great story because it’s not simply a black story or an American story. It’s a human story, because every time a person pushes through adversity and wins, we all win.”

After the tour was over, Dawes decided she would return to learn more, but next time she would bring her family. As a mother of two young children, she was thrilled to find a place where she could make affordable memories with her family right in her backyard in D.C. She had found her parks.

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