As an attorney working on prisoner re-entry, fair housing and discrimination cases with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Emily Turner knew the statistics all too well:
- Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled to 2.3 million from 500,000.
- African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million and are incarcerated — at nearly six times the rate of whites.
- The United States is 5 percent of the world population but incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
- One in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population, is under some sort of institutional correctional control.
- African American and Hispanic Americans make up 25 percent of the U.S. population and comprise 58 percent of all prisoners.
“Can’t look away,” she said last week, sitting in the decidedly comfy confines of a South Minneapolis coffee shop. Then she said it again. “Can’t look away.”
So much so that Turner left her job at HUD last month and is now on a mission to launch All Square (allsquarempls.com), a craft grilled cheese shop in the Minnehaha Mile of the Longfellow neighborhood. The joint will be staffed by not “felons” or “ex-convicts” but, as she’s careful to put it, “people with criminal records.”
“At the end of the day, I’d love for All Square to just be a really good grilled cheese shop and not have to label them at all,” said Turner, 33, who has degrees in architecture and public policy and received her law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans. “There’s legal issues with being exclusive and discriminatory in hiring, so you can target that population but I can’t say ‘I will only hire you if you have a record.’ It’s kind of fun, though, to think about what an application says, ‘Do you have a criminal record?’ And you say ‘No,’ and we’re like, ‘Sorry.’
“The name ‘All Square’ sort of to me is that a grilled cheese sandwich is square, but also at the end of the day, ‘You’re square,’ like this lifetime punishment is so punitive. I also love the simplicity of grilled cheese.”
Wait, are we seriously talking about grilled cheese sandwiches?
“If I’m being truthful, I can’t cook, with the exception of grilled cheese,” she said with a laugh. “Anytime people are coming over, they know they’re getting grilled cheese. But they’re really good grilled cheese.
“So we had a few friends over and they were joking, ‘You should do a grilled cheese shop.’ And I actually did some research and found out it’s kind of trendy right now, and with my architecture background I could sort of see this love space, a space with really good energy.
“So it was really just hanging out there in the ethos, like ‘Who knows?’ And it was this summer that I got really frustrated with HUD, and I was at Sea Salt at the [Minnehaha] Falls and I just thought, ‘What if I did that grilled cheese restaurant? And I hired specifically — I can’t exclusively — but what if I consciously looked to hire people with records?’ Just to send a message, like, ‘Not here. We totally dismiss the idea that this whole swath of the population be demonized and forgotten.’ And, honestly, from that moment on I’ve been obsessed.”
A St. Paul native who grew up in a small town in North Dakota, Turner has been a Minneapolis resident for one year. Two years ago, she participated in HUD’s “Emerging Leaders Program,” which set her on a path to All Square, as did her time studying in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
“I was dating someone in New Orleans who lived in the 7th Ward who was so passionate about criminal justice and the prison systems, it opened my eyes to a whole new world,” she said. “And honestly, one of my dearest friends — he went to Tulane Law School — he murdered someone when he was 18. It was a huge ordeal: Tulane was letting in a murderer, and admittedly I was one of those folks who was (asking), ‘I wonder if I’m ever going to have a class with him?’ I was just shaken by it a little, just that I didn’t know what to expect.
“And of course fast-forward now three, four, five years and this man is my dearest friend. I trust him with my life. His story isn’t a matter of ‘This is why it was OK to do it.’ It was a matter of ‘Here’s what I was going through and here’s what happened and here’s where I am now.’
“He really pushed my understanding of what it meant to be someone with a pretty egregious criminal record. It really helped me to contextualize it. These are real people who just mess up, and a lot of people with records didn’t ever mess up. That’s the truth, right?
“Also, through this relationship I was in, I got to know very deeply and loved dearly Herman Wallace, who was a member of the Angola Three (three former prison inmates who were put in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1972 for the killing of a corrections officer). I know that’s very controversial to some folks, but he was the most tender, compassionate man I’ve ever met. He was a legal mentor to me, and I’m better every day for knowing him. He was in solitary confinement for 41 years. Ridiculous.”
The former prisoners became Turner’s friends and legal mentors, but she knew her work as a lawyer wouldn’t satisfy her desire to do more. In short order, she’s recruited a small board of directors, teamed with superstar chef Sarah Master on a menu, is being mentored by Lowbrow owners Heather Bray and Jodi Ayers and — with a Kickstarter launch party set for 7:30 p.m.–10:00 p.m. Sept. 8 at Du Nord Craft Spirits — has her sights set on a spring opening date.
“What really pushed me to actually do this is the question from my formerly incarcerated brothers and sisters saying, ‘Awesome, it’s great to have an ally, but are you ever going to be an accomplice? Like, what are you gonna do? Are you effectively looking away when you aren’t doing something to mobilize?’
“And that’s a question I want to be able to say, even if it fails, ‘Here’s my response.’ I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I think it could, and more than anything, there’s really good intentions behind it. And at least I’ll be able to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘I tried. I see it, it’s crazy, I don’t agree with it, I think we’re better than this.’
“At its core this grilled cheese shop is so important, but I think the vision behind it, as far as what it can be in a bigger context, is what’s fueling it. There’s issues around housing and mental illness with this population, and the expungement part, as a lawyer, I want to help people clear these records. Those are all the dreams I really can’t wait to bake in, but right now step one is just the bricks and mortars and get up and running.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in Minneapolis. He can be reached at email@example.com