Romeo pays more than lip service to raising awareness of dating violence
By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- Lorin Romeo, office coordinator for the Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education (SHARE) office, has a motto she lives by: "Share your dreams with each person you meet. If the person can't help you, he or she may know someone who can."
Romeo has put that philosophy to work to start a not-for-profit company that helps raise awareness of dating violence among college students.
The project started when Romeo created a cosmetics company from her college apartment three years ago. Romeo was studying painting at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia when she decided to try her hand at cosmetics. To get the venture off the ground, she made cold calls to cosmetics manufacturers, accountants and marketers seeking advice and help.
"I kept calling one person after another until I found someone who was willing to hold my hand," she said. Romeo funded the venture herself, hiring a chemist to help her design a line of high-end lipsticks and lip glosses. She named the company Toscana, after her Italian great-grandmother, and ordered 20,000 lipstick tubes with 'Toscana" embossed along the side.
And then, after two years of work, Romeo hit a serious roadblock: A major cosmetics company said she was committing trademark infringement by using the name Toscana, which was similar to the name of a product in that company's line. Romeo consulted five lawyers, who told her that without deep pockets, there was no way to mount a legal challenge.
"I had to stop," she said. "It was absolutely horrendous for me." She moved on, relocating to Princeton after her college graduation and getting a job at an investment firm. Then in June 2001, Romeo was skimming through the pages of Lucky magazine when she saw an ad asking for donations of empty lipstick tubes.
"It felt like fate," Romeo said. An organization called My Sister's Place, a shelter for battered women and their children in Washington, D.C., was using lipstick tubes to distribute information to victims of domestic violence. Tucked inside the tubes, instead of lipstick, was a small piece of paper printed with phone numbers and information on how to get help. The Washington police and officials at Andrews Air Force Base were giving the lipsticks to women.
"You couldn't give a woman a pamphlet -- what if her abuser found it?" Romeo pointed out. "She would throw a pamphlet in the garbage. But you could slip her a lipstick. It's discreet, and the abuser wouldn't think of looking in there."
Romeo donated her 20,000 unused lipstick tubes to My Sister's Place, and started helping the organization publicize its efforts. Soon she decided to reconfigure her dormant cosmetics company as a not-for-profit that would bring awareness to and educate people about dating violence, as well as give them information on where to get help. She renamed her company the Toscana Fellowship.
In December 2001 Romeo joined the University as an administrative assistant at the library's Forrestal campus operations. A few months later, when Romeo met the coordinator of the SHARE program, Thema Bryant-Davis, at a sexual harassment workshop on campus, it was another stroke of good fortune. SHARE, which offers counseling and information to the University community on sexual harassment, sexual assault or harassment based on sexual orientation, had an opening for an office coordinator, and Romeo was hired.
In the last year, Romeo has run a workshop for peer educators at SHARE and addressed an audience of 35 Princeton students about dating violence. Last month she handed out her lipstick tubes to Princeton students attending a town hall meeting on harassment.
"She is very energetic and connects with students, and really gets people involved in the dialogue," said Bryant-Davis. "She's very passionate and very committed beyond just doing her job. She not only has the vision for new things, but also the follow-through."
Romeo also has enlisted the help of Princeton junior Melissa Ginsberg, who holds the title of director of programming for Toscana.
"Working with the Toscana Fellowship has taught me an enormous amount about starting a business and about nonprofit organizations," Ginsberg said. "I have learned so much about the issues surrounding this growing social problem that I would not have been aware of."
Ginsberg is writing her junior paper on why sexual assaults on college campuses are so under-reported and what can be done to encourage students to report them. She also has been concentrating on completing the paperwork to get nonprofit status for Toscana. Working with Romeo, who is adept at getting anybody she encounters to volunteer to help, has taught Ginsberg a lot about networking. "Lorin's enthusiasm seems to rub off on everyone around her, resulting in support from every direction," Ginsberg said.
Keeping her options open
"I just pull people in," Romeo said. "I tell anybody who will listen, and I've gotten really far with that." She described her project to Janet Dickerson, vice president for campus life, when the two met at a book reading, and discovered that Dickerson's daughter, Dawn, had just completed a business degree in marketing and managing cosmetics. She, too, has offered her help. "I have been most impressed with Lorin's determination to get the message of safety and respect out to young women who might need reinforcement for their values and principles," Dickerson said.
Off campus, Romeo is teaching a one-session evening class at Brookdale Community College about dating violence and self-esteem. She recently conducted a workshop at the Jewish Family and Children's Service in Princeton. And Jersey Shore Medical Center will soon be distributing 2,000 lipstick tubes with information in English and Spanish on getting help for domestic violence.
Eventually, Romeo hopes to train others to conduct workshops, and her plan is that one day the Toscana Fellowship will sell cosmetics to raise money to fund its programs on dating violence. For now, she is keeping all her options open. She won't, for example, divulge the name of the cosmetics company that pursued her for copyright infringement. "I don't want to burn that bridge," she said. "I feel like one of these days I'm going to turn that around and make it work for me."
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