By Chris Olsen
Emily Hunt Turner was working on a graduate degree in public policy at the University of Georgia when she learned something that affected her profoundly. She’d just gotten involved in a documentary film project called “The Atlanta Way.” The film shed light on local residents forced out of their homes prior to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta under the guise of creating housing for athletes and revitalizing the downtown area. Emily was deeply troubled when she discovered that people were essentially left homeless or “treated like Monopoly pieces because they didn’t have access to information or money.”
Before that, her career path seemed clear. She’d earned an undergraduate degree in architecture and was interested in urban development. But her work on the documentary fueled an unexpected passion for Emily. She began speaking out against housing discrimination and displacement. One of her grad school professors suggested she consider studying law so she could work on changing policies. But Emily was already in her seventh year of college. Plus, she didn’t see herself as a lawyer. She often wore her heart on her sleeve and thought lawyers leaned more toward logical. Despite her initial reservations, she went on to earn a law degree from Loyola and eventually took a position with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Minnesota.
In her role as a HUD attorney, Emily became keenly aware of one of the biggest issues surrounding housing discrimination—tenant selection policies. Specifically, those relating to former inmates. Regardless of circumstances, people with criminal records were being denied a basic human need—access to housing. She realized how deeply discrimination was embedded in the system. It was evident in everything from zoning and land use to lending algorithms and low-income tax credits. She also came to realize there was no legal remedy for exclusion. It was legal to exclude those with criminal records from both public and private housing. And what she could do about it in her current role was limited.
Emily decided she would leave HUD and make it her mission to effect change more directly. She’d bounced around the idea of opening a grilled cheese restaurant and envisioned using it to provide employment opportunities to individuals who were formerly incarcerated. She sought advice from experts—from restaurateurs to employment specialists to the men and women she hoped to employ some day. What emerged from those conversations was All Square—Emily’s innovative approach to supporting those affected by the justice system by removing some of the barriers they face when re-entering society.
To fund her social enterprise, Emily launched a Kickstarter campaign. She raised $60,000 initially and more than $140,000 total in 16 months. But securing additional funding to build out the restaurant seemed next to impossible. She was asking banks to invest in a concept without a guarantee and she was denied funding over and over again. Thanks to a grant from the Minneapolis Foundation, a loan guaranteed by two families, and a “Grilled Cheese for Life” membership campaign, Emily finally got the capital she needed for the construction.
In September of 2018, All Square launched in south Minneapolis, Minnesota. The grilled cheese sandwich restaurant and training center is dedicated to empowering former prison inmates through living wage employment, ongoing education and opportunities for entrepreneurship. One fellow from the inaugural cohort has already launched an online business. Another has gone on to pursue a law degree. Now in year two, Emily and her team have welcomed the second group of fellows who will work in the restaurant, learn about the legal system and imagine and work toward a brighter future as entrepreneurs in the All Square Institute and Dream Lab.
Emily doesn’t sugarcoat how difficult it is to launch a business with participants of her programs. She knows they face many more challenges than she did. But she and the board of directors—many of whom are former inmates—are on a mission to disrupt the status quo. They are fully committed to fulfilling All Square’s purpose “to ensure that people impacted by the criminal justice system have the financial support and social capital necessary for a bright and productive future.”
To learn more about Emily’s business, visit AllSquareMpls.com.
Photo: All Square
About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose”. Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support womxn-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.