New restaurant aims to even the odds
“All squared” is street parlance for a settled debt. All Square Restaurant & Institute operates in the spirit that once you serve time for being convicted of a crime, your proverbial debt to society is thereby settled. The nonprofit establishment, still under construction at this writing, will offer its sandwich and brew fare at 4047 Minnehaha Avenue in South Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood.
It’s common knowledge that, contrary to the concept of re-entering life with a fresh start, incarcerated men and women come back into the world with an indelible mark on their records. Having been to prison hangs around one’s neck like a stone, hindering pursuit of vital necessities, most importantly employment and housing.
If you can’t land a legal job you’re going to do something to get yourself by in terms of, if nothing else, food and clothing. This can very well mean returning to bad habits. And, if you have to resort to makeshift housing like a shelter or crashing with old associates, odds are good you’ll be around people to whom those bad habits are second nature.
Realistically speaking, there isn’t much chance of successfully leaving the past behind.
This is why Twin Cities-based attorney Emily Hunter Turner founded All Square as what she terms “a civil rights social enterprise.”
“It’s a culmination,” she said. “I worked as a housing lawyer in New Orleans and experienced all the crazy [shortcomings] of the criminal justice system. It came mostly from being fed up, really angry at what I was seeing.
“We’re giving people life sentences whether or not they have a life sentence, and that’s crazy to me,” Hunter Turner continued. “I enjoyed working for the federal government at HUD [the Department of Housing & Urban Development] but felt I wasn’t part of the solution. There’s a lot that can be done that’s not being done.”
So, she devised a simple means to help solve a complicated problem: an eatery menu specializing in grilled cheese sandwiches, the proceeds of which will go to evening the odds against ex-felons. As the website states, “Our name refers to the shape of our sandwiches and communicates the notion that those who have paid their debts to society are all square. Our aim is to ensure that formerly incarcerated individuals have the health, wealth, and social capital necessary for a bright and productive future.”
Said Hunter Turner, “I’ve had formerly incarcerated mentors and legal scholars who were willing to get on board and help get this thing launched.” Accordingly, while she worked on issues of prisoner reentry, fair housing and segregation for HUD, she said decision-making at All Square by people who’ve been on the receiving end of the system was paramount.
“They are the people who are impacted every day,” said Hunter Turner. “They have the value. They have the experience.” Toward that end, she added, “We’ve announced our first leadership position.
“In the application it says, ‘You have to have been formerly incarcerated to apply for this job. If you haven’t been, we don’t believe you have the experience necessary to lead,’” she said. “The people shaping this have to be perfectly suited to do just that. We are going to invest not only in employing them at the restaurant, but in their careers and who they are as humans.”
Further, the All Square board of directors includes experts with first-hand knowledge on what individuals need in order to stay out of prison. Among the directors is Bruce Reilly, deputy director at the New Orleans criminal justice reform organization Voice of the Experienced (VOTE).
A jailhouse lawyer during his stay behind bars, Reilly’s report on criminal background checks in public housing was key to New Orleans devising a policy now lauded by HUD as its national model. He is also architect of the 2016 lawsuit VOTE v. Louisiana, which challenged a state law denying residents the right to vote while on probation or parole.
Another All Square director is Calvin Duncan, co-founder of the community development corporation Rising Foundations, which helps formerly incarcerated people gain access to housing, employment and financial services.
Wrongfully sentenced to life without parole, Duncan served almost 30 years in prison before winning his own freedom and going on to become a paralegal at the Louisiana Capital Appeals Project. Duncan co-founded First 72+, a transitional home and reentry program by and for individuals returning home from prison.
Board member Sarah Catherine Walker has never done time. She did, however, spend seven years as the chief operating officer at 180 Degrees, Inc., jamming a wedge in the revolving door of recidivism by helping the recently incarcerated reenter society. Walker also created the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, enabling individuals exiting the criminal justice system to support themselves and contribute to their communities.
All said, there’s good reason to view All Square Restaurant & Institute as a purposefully devised agent of change. After all, if you’re going to fix a problem, the most effective means of going about that is to involve those it most heavily impacts.
For more information on All Square Restaurant & Institute, visit www.allsquarempls.com.