The Not Cool Club at UCL has gained a lot of traction. All around campus the walls are covered in black and yellow posters promoting the club and inviting students to ‘Be Better’ and ‘Give a Shit for Once’. Having only started in September, the club already had a membership of almost 80 people, and a polished social media presence. The Cheese Grater Magazine sat down the Not Cool Club President, Ian Piczenik, for an interview to discuss the club’s vision and goals going forward.
When asked about how the Not Cool Club was born, Ian recounts a heart-breaking story from his travels in India, Varanasi, in December 2018, where an older man invited him to engage in sexual activity with a 12-13 year old girl selling hats in a street stall. Ian says, ‘I walked away and it really upset me a lot… I didn’t do anything wrong, but by not doing anything wrong, I also wasn’t doing anything right, and by not doing anything right I wasn’t part of the solution.’ After realising sexual harassment happens all around us, he came up with the idea for the Not Cool Club, launching it in September 2019.
Ian explains that one of the goals of the Not Cool Club is to challenge the culture that normalises sexual harassment, which is why the ‘flagship programme’ of the club is the Not Cool Sessions. ‘We’re going to societies, where they are, and run a session with them as a group.’ One of the main selling points of the sessions is that they’re led ‘by students for the students.’ There is, however, concern about how the Club will ensure students attend the meetings.
Ian believes that because the sessions are delivered by students, more people will listen, saying ‘students listen to culture’. The club also has a ‘rep’ scheme, where students promote the sessions to a club and build enthusiasm around it. However, there seems to be little guarantee of attendance and people willing to learn, outside of the Not Cool Club’s belief in the efficacy of peer-led sessions. It is worth noting that UCL’s Active Bystander sessions are also conducted by students.
Ian adds, ‘I’m in full praise of the active bystander training programme at UCL, UCL does try its best,’ and insists the Not Cool Club isn’t a criticism of UCL’s handling of sexual harassment issues. But perhaps it ought to be. There are numerous posts of social media platforms, such as UCLove , expressing concern with how UCL has handled cases of sexual harassment.
With programmes such as ‘I Heart Consent’ and the Zero Tolerance Policy appearing as publicity stunts instead of proactive solutions, the student body feels there is a gap in resolving the issue. The Not Cool Club has an opportunity, should they take it, to fill that gap and offer students what they want: a club that not only offers solutions to a pervasive problem, but actively challenges authority where it fails to support those in need, and demands much needed reform.
The Not Cool Club members are being trained by the Brandon Centre in Camden to be able to deliver the sessions, but Ian is aware of their limitations. ‘there’s reactive measures and preventative measures towards sexual harassment,’ he says, ‘with regards to the reactive measures, we’re here to listen, we’re not here to advise.’
What Ian means there is that he understands he and his club aren’t qualified to provide comprehensive counselling to victims of sexual harassment, ‘it would be irresponsible for us to advise.’ However, he assures that during the Sessions, students will be provided with leaflets that give information on where people can get the necessary support and advice that the club cannot reasonably provide.
Ian stresses the desire to open up dialogue surrounding sexual harassment, ‘in these sessions, we want everyone to be there, people who give a shit and people who don’t, and we want people who don’t give a shit to start realising that they should give a shit, because it everyone gave a shit, then the problem wouldn’t be there.’
Whilst the Not Cool Club has generated a lot of enthusiasm, it hasn’t been immune to criticism, with UCLove posts expressing concerned with how the Not Cool Club is approaching the issue of sexual harassment. When asked about this, Ian says, ‘there’s valid criticism and there’s not valid criticism.’
Ian wants to focus on the valid criticism, and he accepts that some of it is indeed valid. One UCLove post criticising the club points out that sexual harassment is a very complex issue and Ian agrees, ‘sexual harassment is an incredibly complex issue… there’s no one key solution to sexual harassment, and we don’t believe there is, however, complex problems, yes, complex solutions, no.’ Ian believes that ‘solutions always have to be direct and clear.’
One UCLove post accuses the Not Cool Club of being ‘self-indulgent and shallow,’ which Ian says is ‘ignorant’ and doesn’t consider to be valid criticism. When it comes to the criticism he sees as invalid, he says ‘I don’t give a shit about those to be honest, because it’s incredibly ignorant.’ To people who have ‘valid’ criticisms, Ian says ‘message us directly it’s so much more helpful. Join us, get on board, there’s room for more people to get involved.’
In the next year, the Not Cool Club has ambitions to offer the Not Cool Sessions to schools. ‘we want to go into schools and speak to kids, year 9, year 10, year 11, year 12, these are the really crucial years be cause that’s when you start becoming sexually active and that’s when you start deciding and cementing in your head what is correct behaviour, what are incorrect behaviours,’ Ian says.
Ian believes that the conversation should be open to everyone, whether it’s people who are already invested in the movement, or those who have questions and doubts. He says that the club ‘is about sparking up conversation, and from there answers flow.’
He ends by stating that the Not Cool Club ‘is a collective movement of people saying enough is enough.’ There seems to be a genuine passion about challenging the culture of sexual harassment and being part of the solution, and it’s certainly generated a lot of interest. However, the club is still in its infancy, and whether it succeeds is yet to be seen.
This appeared in CG Issue 71