John Gaventa was born in Tennessee in 1949. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1971, was a Rhodes Scholar, and received his doctorate from Oxford University. In 1976, Gaventa began a grassroots adult educational program at Highlander Research and Education Center. He received a MacArthur Award for this work in 1981.
In 1982, Gaventa published his groundbreaking book, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley, a study to uncover the “hidden faces of power” in the Clear Fork Valley in Central Appalachia. The research documented how an absentee British company owned much of the land in the valley and how it extracted resources and wealth without benefitting the region.
Gaventa served as director of Highlander Center from 1993 to 1996. From 2011-2014, he served as the director of the Coady International Institute and Vice-President of International Development at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada. As of January 2022, he lives in England, where he is the Director of Research at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.