By Darlene Donloe
At Mandar Apte’s core is a man of peace.
A calming spirit with a heart for people, Apte, originally from Mumbai, India, wants to “start an avalanche of love and peace” in the City of Angels “so the whole world can look up to Los Angeles and we can start a trend of peace.”
Taking to heart his own edict, Apte founded Cities4Peace in 2019, as an initiative of the International Association for Human Values.
The association offers programs to reduce stress and develop leaders so that human values can flourish in people and communities.
Its programming enhances the clarity of mind, shifts attitudes and behaviors and develops leaders and communities that are resilient, responsible and inspired.
“I started Cities4Peace because I felt and still feel there is a need for communities and neighborhoods to take proactive ownership of promoting peace,” said the former Shell Oil petroleum engineer. “We are so desensitized to violence, so immune to violence in America. It happens so often.
“I noticed whatever violence it is, we say that ‘it won’t happen to me because I live in a better neighborhood.’ We are mistaken. Violence can happen anywhere. No matter your skin color or bank balance or socio-political views.”
A big part of the program has to do with breathing and meditation.
Apte said incorporating the simple act of intentional breathing can change how people interact with each other.
The Cities4Peace programs aim to improve the quality of life in cities by teaching peace, nonviolence and compassion through yoga and meditation practices. Through these teachings, the project hopes to strengthen communication and understanding between city officials and the community.
The program began its inaugural nonviolence ambassador certification program in South Los Angeles and brought together officials and community members.
“It has to start somewhere,” Apte said. “I want to be on the side of peace and compassion. I want Los Angeles to become the change. That way, it can create a ripple effect.”
A yoga/meditation teacher for 18 years, Apte said he noticed that when violence happens, most people never think about why they are “thinking and waiting for violence … to think about peace.”
“We can’t wait,” he said. “That’s why I started this initiative. I moved to Los Angeles from Houston because I did some research on the cost of violence.
“If you add up all the things that happen, it turns out $1million is spent for one murder. It’s a multimillion dollar business. Marginalized people bear the brunt of all of this. My goal is to make L.A. a more peaceful place.”
Apte said people are looking for peace in the wrong places.
“People are looking for peace in a Jaguar, iPhone 12, or new Jordans,” he said. “If we don’t have that, we are not happy. That is where we are losing it.
“If someone else has it and you don’t, you become jealous. We are looking in the wrong places for peace.”
To find inner peace, Apte said he practices yoga every day.
“It’s the cornerstone of my life,” he said. “Quiet, solace and contentment. I come back to my nature. When we are in our nature, violence will go away.”
On its website, Cities4Peace states: “In 2018, there were over 25,000 violent crimes (including murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault) reported in Los Angeles. Over 70% of these incidents were reported in South Los Angeles, thus creating huge stress on local residents and the police department.”
In an effort to reduce those numbers, in 2019, Cities4Peace brought together LAPD officers, former gang members, and community members for an eight-week nonviolence ambassador certification training program.
“At first everyone thought they didn’t have anything in common,” Apte said. “But they all wanted to get rid of trauma. There was a desire to be peaceful.”
Apte has brought his program to four L.A. neighborhoods including South Central, Harbor City, Pico-Union and Pasadena.
“I trained the mayor and police and the superintendent of schools, pastors, and gangs in Pomona,” said Apte. “We all need to talk about our mental well-being. We can’t be embarrassed about it. We all need each other. We all need help.”
During the training, participants learn how to breathe and meditate. The organization built the capacity of the participants to promote nonviolence and rethink peace in South L.A.
The George Mason University School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution undertook an independent research evaluation of the program in Los Angeles and said it deepened understanding of and commitment towards nonviolence, learned a profound tool-kit of meditation techniques and wisdom for enabling transformation on a daily basis, and improved leadership capacity to promote compassion and nonviolence within the community.
Participants said the program increased energy and happiness, their ability to stay focused, enhanced clarity of mind, and their ability to remain calm in challenging situations while increasing the effectiveness in both their personal and professional life and helped with the ease of social connections.
Rosa Lagunas, 29, a Harbor City resident, works as a program coordinator with Apte at Cities4Peace. She believes in the program wholeheartedly for personal reasons.
Within a two-year period, she witnessed two neighborhood crimes.
“When both happened, I found both of the bodies,” said Lagunas, who studied behavioral science at Cal State Dominguez Hills and is now in grad school at UCLA studying social welfare.
“The first one was dead. They had been shot in the brain. The second one died from a loss of blood. These happened about a year apart. Both happened within my apartment complex.”
Lagunas said she didn’t know how to process what she had seen.
“In the beginning, I felt amazing that I was able to support someone during their last moment on earth,” she said. “A day later, I became depressed and emotional. I was sad, then angry, then sad again. This happened for a long time. I was grieving and angry.”
Lagunas went to therapy at her college for six months and then came to Cities4Peace after participating in a program called Foundation: The Art of Living and after finishing a class called the Happiness Program.
After meeting Apte and witnessing gang members speak about how the Cities4Peace program brought peace to their lives, she started volunteering before becoming part of the staff.
“The program works,” she said.
For 17 years, Apte worked for Shell and managed its GameChanger social innovation program investing in ideas that create shared value — business values and social impact. In 2016, Apte produced the “From India With Love” documentary to reinvigorate the message of nonviolence in the world.
Aligned with that mission, in October 2018, he hosted the inaugural World Summit for Countering Violence & Extremism that brought together peace activists and law enforcement executives from across the world in the spirit of promoting peace and compassion in the world.
For more than a decade, Apte has taught leadership programs using meditation practices for the International Association for Human Values and the Art of Living Foundation.
Cities4Peace’s SKY Mindful Leadership and Ambassadors of Peace Program create the personal transformation upon which leaders from civic organizations, law enforcement agencies and community activists come together and design plans to mitigate violence and promote sustainable peace in their communities and neighborhoods.
Asked if he thought he would ever see world peace during his lifetime Apte was optimistic.
“Whomever I meet and is in my world, I can at least be thinking about bringing peace in their life,” he said. “If each one of us does that, that’s how you get to world peace.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.