Sometimes, in life, if you can’t find your way, it helps to look for find someone who inspires you in small ways—not some hero beyond reach, but an ordinary person doing something extraordinary. Maybe a person who seems to be all good—who radiates positivity. You’ve probably met someone like this: a person smiles and it’s so genuine it automatically triggers a smile in anyone who sees it. Bonus: the person is always smiling. Superbonus: this person makes a great grilled cheese sandwich.
Emily Hunt Turner is this person. And she’s opening All Square, a nonprofit gourmet grilled cheese shop that will hire individuals with criminal records (coming August 2017). The name refers to grilled cheese, but also Turner’s belief that those who have paid their debts to society are all square—free, like you and I, to be fully part of this society.
I talked to a professor once who asks his students to “take 30 seconds and think of the worst thing in your life you’ve ever done. Now imagine that defines you. At what point does the person convicted of a crime get to come back?”
All Square is a restaurant that allows people a way back.
In October 2016, All Square raised $60,000 with Kickstarter (I gave!) to get the project off the ground. Turner is using that momentum to raise additional funds, and then it’s grilled cheese time—just in time for fall, or as I like to call it, grilled cheese and tomato soup season.
“I think we're on our way to securing the funds we need,” says Turner. “The interest in the project has been overwhelming and I'm so thankful for that.”
Turner ended up here after resigning from her position as an attorney (she’s also an architect and has a masters in public policy, so maybe a bit of an overachiever) with the Department of Housing and Urban Development where she’d spent five years working on issues of prisoner reentry, housing discrimination, and housing segregation.
She calls All Square “a direct response to the exclusionary practices I’ve witnessed ...and an attempt to reverse what I believe to be a grave systemic trend that is crippling so many lives and opportunities across the country.”
The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. Not a great stat to take pride in, considering our “Land of the Free” slogan. We also disenfranchise criminals at an astonishing rate (2.6 million people who have completed their sentences could not vote in the last election because of something they’d done in the past). Not a great stat to be proud of considering “democracy.” This “once a criminal, always a criminal” attitude results in exclusion from society, and stands in the way of successful reentry for many.
It’s not just voting: having a criminal record presents obstacles to employment, housing, education, family reunification, building good credit, and more.
Yet 87 percent of employers conduct background checks. Because of it, more than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed one year after being released; those who do find jobs take home 40 percent less pay.
“In my mind,” says Turner, “this project will symbolize the importance of a clean slate and community support while sending a message that those who have paid their debts to society should be afforded the right to live, unhindered, into their future.”
Listen to a podcast with Turner discussing All Square.
Follow All Square on Instagram, Facebook, & Twitter @allsquarempls.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
- Become a patron in August and enjoy delicious grilled cheese.
- Let Emily know of any corporate or individual sponsors interested in All Square.
- If you're an employer, or a housing provider, or in a position of power/influence, please consider people's circumstances, their backstory, their progress, and their merit before turning them away on the basis of having a record.
- Treat everyone equally!
- Make a pledge to do good!.