This year, in partnership with Nickelodeon, TIME is recognizing in the U.S. its first ever Kid of the Year, a barometer for the rising leaders of America’s youngest generation. To choose the most influential kids of 2020, we looked across social media and school districts, at actions big and small. “Small steps can lead to big change,” says TIME for Kids editor Andrea Delbanco. “These are everyday kids making change in their communities in a fun and accessible—but very impactful—way.”
Panelists including representatives from the Special Olympics and Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA formed an advisory committee to help judge the more than 5,000 U.S.-based nominees on the positive impact they’ve had this year and signs that they’ll continue to lead in the future. A committee of kids, including Nickelodeon stars Young Dylan and Chinguun Sergelen, Disney star Sky Katz, Little Chef Ivy, and Time For Kids kid reporters Tiana Sirmans and Raunak Singh, then worked with comedian Trevor Noah to narrow down the finalists and select the ultimate Kid of the Year.
The five finalists have grown food for those in crisis, designed better toys for kids with disabilities, and started new conversations about racial justice. They include Tyler Gordon, 14, from San Jose, Calif.; Jordan Reeves, 14, from Columbia, Mo.; Bellen Woodard, 10, from Leesburg, Va.; and Ian McKenna, 16, from Austin.
Exceptional leadership is what made the ultimate Kid of the Year, 15-year-old scientist and inventor Gitanjali Rao, stand out. Rao not only researches scientific tools such as artificial intelligence and carbon nanotube sensor technology and applies them to problems she sees in everyday life, like cyberbullying and water contamination. She also shows other kids how to tap into their curiosity, aspiring to create a generation of innovators.
Each of this year’s five finalists will be designated a TIME for Kids Kid Reporter, given opportunities to contribute to TIME, and will receive a cash prize from Viacom, Nickelodeon’s owner.
“I really hope the work that all of these kids are doing identifies innovation as a necessity and not something that’s a choice anymore,” Rao tells Angelina Jolie in an interview for TIME. “I hope I can be a small part of that.”