Neon lights and civil rights: All Square offers food with purpose
March 7, 2020
All Square is a nonprofit social enterprise that helps formerly incarcerated people reenter into society. Located at 4047 Minnehaha Ave in Minneapolis, All Square serves craft grilled cheese, and civil rights. Emily Hunt Turner, founder of All Square, created it as a response to the widespread exclusion of individuals with criminal records.
“Right now the reality is that there is a stigma with having a criminal record, and it is critically shaping and devaluing lives across the country,” Hunt Turner said.
One in four people have a criminal record, and they frequently experience oppression when trying to find a job or buy a house due to, in many cases, one mistake. Hunt Turner explained how people who make a mistake are discriminated against for the rest of their lives because of it. “It’s one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time, using people’s criminal record against them. It’s a legal way to discriminate against people, particularly people of color,” Hunt Turner said.
Before founding All Square, Hunt Turner worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and was struck by the thousands of people every year all over the country who are denied public and private housing on the basis of a criminal record. Disproportionately these people are female and/or of color. There are 5 million formerly incarcerated people in the country and they are ten times more likely to experience homelessness, according to an article published in The Prison Policy Initiative.
“When you work for the federal government and you’re looking at everything from a national perspective, it’s so disempowering because it just feels hopeless, this is such a big issue. I went to the opposite end in starting a nonprofit. All Square is tiny, it’s one building. It’s fourteen people a year that we invest in. It’s so small, but at the same time, it’s so big,” Turner said.
All Square has a number of components, including a twelve-month fellowship designed to empower leadership and professional development for those who were formerly incarcerated. Fellows work around 30 hours a week in the restaurant, and have the opportunity to participate in weekly one-on-one therapy sessions, which are paid.
“We never make fellows choose between losing an hour of work and taking care of their mental health. So, if they choose to do therapy, they get paid on the clock to do it. I think we’re the only program in the country that does that and we’re really proud of it because mental health is everything,” Turner said.
In fostering leadership and teaching important professional development skills, All Square puts an array of professional options back on the table. A lot of times, when people get out of prison, their options for jobs are very limited. The fellowship program focuses on personal agency, self-awareness, and techniques to develop on a personal level.
Tony Williams Jr. hopes to start a bar and grill: “All Square is an outlet for people who’ve never had opportunities. I’ve never had anyone to look up to. This is a place I can get that. I can believe in this system,” he said.
All Square believes that people who have paid their debts to society are “all square,” and should be able to move on.
“We believe that choice for everybody about their profession is critical… the more formerly incarcerated judges and lawyers and paralegals and legal assistants that we have, the more informed and thoughtful discipline can be. We’re always trying to figure out how to reform the system, but the folks who’ve lived in it, and live with the barriers are often the best to make it better,” Turner said.
When thinking of All Square, Turner hopes one would approach it with empathy and compassion. There is an importance in investing in those who have been affected.
“Imagine if you knew you could not have any upward mobility in life, imagine if you didn’t have options … that means imagine if you had done something and you would never be able to move past that thing… on a human level that’s so completely demoralizing, that my takeaway would be to self reflect about just how hard that would be,” she said.
In the future, All Square hopes to expand and replicate in different locations across the country. For now, the focus is on improving and optimizing the current reentry model in Minneapolis.