Two years ago, Emily Turner quit her job as a U.S. Housing and Urban Development attorney to open a grilled cheese restaurant. Turner, who worked on prisoner reentry, housing segregation, and fair housing, was frustrated about not feeling like part of the solution.
The restaurant was a new way to fight for justice: To get a job at the nonprofit restaurant, you need a criminal record. On Mondays, when the restaurant closes, employees take classes in entrepreneurship and law.
The restaurant, which opened this September in Minneapolis, is called All Square, a play on the shape of the sandwiches it sells and the fact that after serving time, someone should be able to reenter society with a clean slate. Instead, people who were formerly incarcerated struggle to find jobs, get credit, and rent apartments. Turner had seen a landlord evict one couple with a perfect rental record after finding out about a 40-year-old criminal conviction.
“I really was exposed to some of the grave setbacks of the system,” says Turner. “For me, denying those with criminal records from moving forward is one of the biggest civil rights issues of my generation… I saw tremendous barriers for those with records. And also witnessed the deep privilege I’ve had.”
The restaurant’s board includes a CEO who was a five-time felon, a community organizer who was born in prison and later served time, and successful businessman who was wrongly convicted. Together, they planned a 13-month program for others with criminal records (including some who haven’t been to prison, because just an arrest record can cause problems with employment). Employees, called fellows, spend 30 hours each week working in the restaurant, and are also paid for 10 hours of structured coursework.