By: Peter Skopec, director
WISPIRG mourns the passing and celebrates the life of our former state director, Bruce Speight, who died in Seattle, Washington, on September 20, following a long illness. He was 45 years old.
Losing Bruce is devastating to his family and friends, his colleagues and the entire advocacy community. I’ve had many sad phone calls with friends and partners, all of whom shared beautiful stories about how Bruce impacted their lives and helped make them more effective advocates, more dedicated public servants, and just better people.
To all who knew him, Bruce was easygoing, affable, fun-loving. He was also a consistently effective champion of the environment and the public interest, an organizer who made an outsized impact on clean energy, wildlife preservation, campaign finance reform and many other issues.
“Every moment I had with my friend Bruce Speight was a moment working for progress for our community, and the state that I love, and for our country,” said Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson. “I met Bruce back when I was a college student and he was a PIRG organizer. The first time I remember talking to him, we were in the org center of the student union and, funny enough, we spent the first few minutes trying to decide if we had met before at some point. It turned out it just felt like we knew each other from the start. From that day on, we worked together for clean air and water, for equitable transit funding, to help register voters, to safeguard democracy and more. I'll hold onto memories of him coming into my office whenever he needed to vent, of our families hanging out at the Estabrook beer garden, and of how lucky I am to have gotten to know him at all.”
Most recently as state director of our partner group, Environment Washington, Bruce organized a successful campaign to pass the state’s 100% Clean Electricity Bill, which requires utilities to obtain 100 percent of their electricity from carbon-free energy sources by 2045. He also launched and led a campaign to protect Puget Sound’s southern resident orcas, rallying more than 15,000 people to call for action to restore salmon populations, a key food source for the endangered orcas. In April 2019, the Washington Legislature allocated $750,000 to study the issue.
Bruce Speight was the state director of Wisconsin PIRG prior to his move to Washington, in 2015. Among countless other accomplishments at WISPIRG, he helped win a smoke-free workplace law and a ban on the use of BPA in children’s products. He also ran the Wisconsin New Voters Project, which helped 20,000 young people register to vote.
Ashwat Narayanan, former Transportation Policy Director at 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and now at Our Streets Minneapolis, told me, “I first met Bruce when I was just out of grad school. I was working with him on a community organizing campaign to stop a major highway expansion in Milwaukee. I was feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of our goal, and remarked pessimistically that the people in power ‘wouldn’t listen to us.’ Bruce looked at me with surprise. He leaned across the table and gave me a sharp tap on my shoulder as if to say ‘snap out of it.’ ‘Of course, we are going to win,’ he said. He completely believed what he said, and in that moment, I started to believe it myself. Five years later, after a long campaign, we won. The state dropped plans to expand the highway.”
“I will never forget Bruce's organizing efforts on consumer issues, particularly predatory loans,” said Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of WISPIRG’s federal consumer program. “I have always loved this photo (below): Bruce organized a high-powered coalition led by a Catholic archbishop and a Lutheran bishop. Add a conservative Republican legislator and civil rights leaders, and Bruce helped convince Gov. Scott Walker not to sign a budget that legalized the predatory rent-to-own industry.”
Bruce’s public interest career started in Massachusetts, where he came onto staff with MASSPIRG as a campus organizer in 1998. Later, he became director of the Massachusetts Community Water Watch program, a joint effort of MASSPIRG and the federal AmeriCorps program.
Bruce met his wife, Heidi Blankenship Speight, in Massachusetts. They married in 2007 at a ceremony in Yosemite National Park, and spent subsequent vacations with family and friends in national parks throughout the West. He was a graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine and grew up in Hampton, Virginia.
Bruce entered hospice care in mid-September, where he spent his last days with his wife; his two children, Sylvan and Wyatt; his mother and father, Hope and Wayne; his brother, Chad; and other family and close friends.
Celeste Meiffren-Swango, a colleague and state director of Environment Oregon, said, “You couldn't help but be in a good mood around Bruce. He set an example of how to move through life with joy and purpose.”
“It's devastating to know that I'll never get to hear his laugh again as we talk through problems,” added State Senator Larson. “Thank you, Bruce. Because of you, I'm a better advocate and a better person. May we each carry forward the good fight in your name.”
Those who knew him will remember and miss Bruce for his fun-loving spirit, his knack for making a connection with everybody he met, and his infectious hope and faith that people who fight the good fight will win in the end.
With joy and purpose, we’ll honor his memory and carry on that good fight.
Many of Bruce’s friends, colleagues and partners have asked what they can do to help his loved ones at this difficult time. If you would like to support Bruce’s wife Heidi and his sons Sylvan and Wyatt, please consider contributing to his memorial fund at https://www.gofundme.com/f/bruce-speight-memorial-fund.