Fluid Movement, a Baltimore performance troupe known for its offbeat water ballets, roller skating musicals and disco workouts, led a serious workshop Saturday on how to increase community involvement.
What could a comic troupe, cheerfully described by workshop presenters as "kind of wacky," possibly teach area community leaders about increasing turnout at civic association meetings, block parties and trash pickup days?
Quite a lot, it turned out at "From Signing Up to Showing Up," one of many community-building sessions at the Greater Homewood Community Corp.'s 7th annual Neighborhood Institute.
"If you can get people to do this, you can get people to come to a condo meeting," said Karen Stokes, executive director of Greater Homewood, which sponsored the all-day institute at the Colonnade.
"This is not a condo association or neighborhood association," said Stokes, who is an active participant in Fluid Movement. "But there are (similar) principles."
Stokes told the audience she first joined Fluid Movement as a way to let her other half live.
"I needed an excuse to leave work at 5 o' clock," she said.
But as she got to know the all-volunteer group, beyond its glitter-covered swim caps and outlandish costumes, she realized, "This was an incredibly organized organization. I run an organization that counts on volunteers."
Workshop presenters Karen Stults and Valarie Perez-Schere called Fluid Movement "a model" of volunteerism and hard work, from striking sets to hauling chairs.
"You need to carry stuff and get splinters and carry a screwdriver," said founding member Perez-Schere, 40, of Roland Park, a stay-at-home mom, who organized the first Fluid Movement water ballet in Baltimore City's Patterson Park pool in 1999 and produced last year's show, an adaptation of Moby Dick.
"You carry a chair. You sew your own costume," said Stults, 49, of Hampden, a Fluid Movement board member and director of community engagement at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Perez-Schere said Fluid Movement keeps many of its members because "they are invested. You really do become part of the Fluid Movement community. It's a way you can be with other people, being active and having fun."
T prove their point, they showed a video of Fluid Movement doing a disco-ish exercise workout at the Roosevelt Park Recreation Center in Hampden.
Fluid Movement instills self-confidence and a sense of community, the presenters said. It also promotes fun, not only in its performances, but in rules such as that people having to wear silly hats to board meetings.
"It builds connections," said audience member and Fluid Movement participant Nellie Power, of Remington, who oversees family and outreach services for The ARC Baltimore. She said she learned of her job through someone she met in Fluid Movement.
Sharon Guida took away a simple message from the workshop — to have more fun.
"I hear all the time, we need to do something fun," said Guida, of the Charles Village Civic Association. "I need to learn how to make picking up trash more fun."
A more traditional model of community involvement at the institute was the Harwood neighborhood of roughly 1,000 homes, bounded by 25th and 29th streets and Greenmount and Guilford avenues in the Charles Village area.
In a workshop about beautification of neighborhoods, Harwood residents Amanda Ruthven and Ryan Parnell told of their efforts to enliven their community with low-cost projects and activities, from a community garden and a mural to Halloween haunted houses.
Ruthven, 28, an analyst for the federal government, said she moved to Harwood from Laurel in 2012 and found the neighborhood lacking in trees, plants and family activities. Parnell, 34, a construction manager and Harwood resident since 2004, now is president of the Harwood Community Association. He and Ruthven have started the first annual community-wide block parties, and have drawn big crowds to event such as a haunted house, which was held in a vacant house that Parnell's cousin was rehabbing.
"There was not a strong culture of kids trick or treating in the neighborhood," said Ruthven, Greater Homewood's Volunteer of the Year for 2013. "It was kind of like, if we build it, they will come."
They have also transformed an empty lot at the corner of Greenmount and Whitridge Avenue into a community garden next to a bus stop. Ruthven bought 100 cheap watering cans to give children who helped in the garden project, so the children would feel a sense of ownership of the project.
Ruthven early on bought $200 worth of plants and invited the community to a planting day.
"A lot of people came out," she said. "To be honest, none of our plants lived. But that wasn't really the point. The point was to meet my neighbors."
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"I think the biggest thing is the sense of community and bringing people out," Parnell said.