Alverno at Work: Tonnie Boston

For much of her life, Tonnie Boston MA ’20 didn’t know the facts about organ and tissue donation.

“That’s the reason I have a job,” says Boston, who has spent the past six years as community outreach manager for Versiti’s organ procurement organization. Her work places a special emphasis on connecting with people of color. Particularly “in the African American community, we tend to carry a seed of medical mistrust,” she says. “When you start talking about transplanting organs, there are a lot of myths and misinformation.”

Boston developed an outreach program called Churches for Organ Donation, Education and Registration (CodeR). Participating churches receive education sessions and are invited to join such activities as annual gospel concerts. In return, the churches facilitate ongoing conversation among congregants about organ and tissue donation.

CodeR started with one church and now boasts 22 members. The program’s success spurred Boston to create Classmates CodeR, which provides education about organ and tissue donation to high school students at a critical time in their lives.

“When you’re going to the DMV for the first time to get your driver’s license, that’s when the question is asked: Do you want to be an organ donor? We want our teens to make an educated decision,” she says.

Among the facts Boston often shares: African Americans account for nearly 29% of those waiting for an organ transplant but comprise 15% of organ donors. She tells people of color that becoming a registered donor “makes the pool richer for those waiting. You’re likely to have similar genetic makeup and similar blood types, so it makes you a better match.”

Boston acknowledges generational mistrust of the medical establishment in the Black community. Throughout history, Black people have been forcibly subjected to medical experiments. One of the most well-known wrongs was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which Black men unaware they had syphilis were offered free medical care while their syphilis went untreated. “I take this history seriously. And it’s my responsibility to bring this information to our community,” she says.

Recently, Boston embarked on a new way to get the message out: Lifeline, an exhibition that blends facts and debunks myths about organ and tissue donation, featuring pieces by local artists and testimonies from local members of Black sororities and fraternities. The exhibit launched in April at America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.

To bring the exhibit to life, Boston had to use a range of skills, such as fundraising, grantwriting, curating. She also counted on the marketing talents of an Alverno sister, entrepreneur Ebony Ssali MBA ’19 of Ssali Media Group.

The exhibit launched in April at America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee. Because of COVID-19, and because the museum wasn’t yet open to the public, the exhibit was shared virtually, although the people who shared their stories were invited to see it in person, as was the media.

“I could not believe the turnout for that media day,” she says. “I thought maybe two or three stations would show up, but we had a whole room full of media there. There were so many mics on the podium I had no room to put my notes!”

Boston’s work can be emotional and heavy. But she also knows that it is powerful.

“I don’t care if your role is to answer the phone, or organize and schedule meetings. If you’re in organ and tissue donation, you are a lifesaver. Even though I’m not in the emergency room or recovering an organ, I’m still a lifesaver because I’m educating,” she says. “That’s how we train our people. I really take that to heart.”

Photo above by Jeffrey Phelps

This article appears in the winter 2022 issue of Alverno Magazine.

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