The Grassroots and the Gift: Moral Authority, American Philanthropy, and Activism in Education

  • Katharyne Mitchell University of Washington
  • Chris Lizotte University of Washington
Keywords: Philanthropy, neoliberal morality, education reform, parental activism, grassroots movements, Seattle


Parental activism in education reform, while often portrayed as an exemplary manifestation of participatory democracy and grassroots action in response to entrenched corporate and bureaucratic interests, is in fact carefully cultivated and channeled through strategic networks of philanthropic funding and knowledge.  This paper argues that these networks are characteristic of a contemporary form of neoliberal governance in which the philanthropic “gift” both obligates its recipients to participate in the ideological projects of the givers and obscures the incursion of market principles into education behind a veneer of progressive activism.  Drawing on archival research as well as personal interviews with Seattle-based reform advocates, representatives of philanthropic organizations, and school administrators, the paper points to the need to critically evaluate the “roots” in grassroots movements and trace their connections to larger institutions and agendas.

Author Biography

Katharyne Mitchell, University of Washington
Katharyne Mitchell is Professor of Geography at the University of Washington, Seattle. She has published over 75 articles and authored or edited five books, including Crossing the Neoliberal Line: Pacific Rim Migration and the Metropolis, and Practising Public Scholarship: Experiences and Possibilities Beyond the Academy. Mitchell served as Simpson Professor of the Public Humanities at the University of Washington from 2004-2007, and is the recipient of grants from the Spencer Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. Her current research interests focus on philanthropy in education, celebrity humanitarianism, and social impact investment.
How to Cite
Mitchell, K., & Lizotte, C. (2014). The Grassroots and the Gift: Moral Authority, American Philanthropy, and Activism in Education. Foucault Studies, (18), 66-89.
Special Issue on Ethnographies of Neoliberal Governmentalities