He began to help lead a grass-roots adult educational program at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee in 1976, and was director from 1993 until 1996. He received a MacArthur Award in 1981 for his work with the Highlander Center.
Gaventa is Director of the Development Research Centre on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability, a professor and member of the Power, Participation and Social Change Team at the Institute of Development Studies. 
"He has written widely on issues of power, participatory development and governance, civil society and social change. Before coming to IDS in 1996, John was the co-director of research and Director of the Highlander Centre, an NGO with over seven decades of experience in working on poverty and social justice issues in poor regions of the United States. John also serves as Chair of Oxfam Great Britain." 
- John Gaventa, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley (Claredon Press, 1980).
- Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters, We make the road by walking : conversations on education and social change (Temple University Press, 1990). Introduction
- John Gaventa, Barbara E. Smith, Alex W. Willingham, (eds.) Communities in Economic Crisis: Appalachia & the South (Temple University Press, 1990). Written with Ford Foundation support.
- Michael Edwards and John Gaventa (eds.), Global Citizen Action: Perspectives and Challenges (Lynne Rienner-USA/Earthscan-Europe, 2001).